With His BFF Leaving, Is Boehner Eyeing the Exit, Too?

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

With the postmortems of this year’s biggest congressional events winding down, it’s not too early to start forecasting the top Hill stories of the year ahead.

Whatever happens in the career of John A. Boehner is sure to make the list.

If he makes good on his own current assertions by securing a third consecutive term as speaker of the House, that will be one of the more notable events at the Capitol in 2014. That’s because it would seal a total turnabout from the shaky hold he had on his power only a few weeks ago and would mean he’s engineered an uneasy truce in the Republican Party’s war with itself.

If he says he wants to stay in the top job, and his colleagues turn him down, that would be an enormously bigger deal. That’s because it would mark yet another reversal of his fortunes, no speaker has been turned out by his own colleagues in more than a century, and such an insurrection would mean the GOP’s ideological civil war would surely rage on.

But if he calls it quits, by relinquishing the speaker’s gavel or maybe even his congressional district in southwestern Ohio, that would be an outcome somewhere between those first two on the importance continuum. (All of these scenarios are predicated on the safe prediction that the GOP will retain control of the House for the 114th Congress.) While such a decision would assure a fascinating fight for the caucus leadership, it would say less about the party’s future than about Boehner’s fascinatingly evolving personality.

Still, it’s the “Boehner is about to hang it up” narrative that’s captivated the rumor mill this week. That talk is based on only one new piece of information, albeit an extremely important one: Tom Latham is retiring.

In a business where “good friend” is so often used ironically to describe a colleague who’s actually viewed with contempt, most members generally have few genuinely close personal friendships at the Capitol. Bonds with other lawmakers who can be trusted totally to keep both personal secrets and political confidences are hard to come by. They are cultivated sparingly and warily. And, for the most powerful members, welcoming a colleague to speak the unvarnished truth to power is a particularly rare invitation to intimacy.

Boehner actually has a relatively big cadre of congressional buddies who serve as both his crew and his council of elders. And almost no one disputes that Latham, who announced Tuesday that he wouldn’t run for an 11th House term in Iowa, is first among equals in the innermost circle.

These are the dozen or so men (and they are all men) with whom Boehner sneaks cigarettes or cigars, plays nonfundraiser golf and shares drinks before late-night votes in the Capitol Hill Club grill room. They listen to his annoyances, provide him moral support, offer candid political advice and proffer intelligence about the myriad melodramas that bubble up daily in the GOP conference. In private, they tell him what he doesn’t want to hear about a failing strategy or a ham-handed news conference performance. In public, they float his trial balloons, defend his decisions and combat challenges to his authority.

Latham’s decision means at least two of Boehner’s besties will be gone after next year; the other is Saxby Chambliss (like Latham, a member of the House GOP takeover Class of 1994), who is retiring after two terms as a Georgia senator. And a third extremely close confidant, Mike Simpson of Idaho, will be back in 2015 only if he survives a May primary against attorney Bryan Smith, one of the best-funded conservative challengers to a GOP incumbent.

Others in the core group, many of whom helped Boehner stage his upset comeback bid for the leadership in 2006, look sure to stick around: Pat Tiberi of Ohio, Greg Walden of Oregon, Pete Sessions of Texas, Charles Boustany Jr. of Louisiana and Doc Hastings of Washington in the House and, in the Senate, former House colleague Richard M. Burr of North Carolina.

But it is Latham’s surprise decision that has House insiders chattering. The speculation is that Latham’s acting something like a canary in the coal mine for his buddy — his leave taking a reliable sign that Boehner does not plan to stick around much longer, either.

Having rebuffed a heavy recruitment push to seek his state’s open Senate seat, Latham was a safe bet for re-election in Des Moines and southwestern Iowa, even though President Barack Obama carried his district twice. And he was set to become the No. 3 Republican on Appropriations next term. And so speculators are wondering: Why would Latham take early retirement — he’s 65, a year older than Boehner — except in the knowledge that his best friend had decided to do likewise?

The buzz got loud enough Wednesday that Boehner spokesman Michael Steel moved to tamp it down. “These rumors are silly,” he told The Daily Beast. “The speaker has been clear — publicly and privately — that he expects to be speaker in the next Congress.”

Latham aside, the circumstantial evidence suggests Boehner hasn’t popped the clutch yet. Before orchestrating last week’s 2-to-1 GOP majority for the year-ending budget deal, he filed petition papers for seeking his 13th term. (He has until Feb. 5 to make a final decision.) He posted a slick new video on his leadership website Tuesday, boasting that the House GOP has done its part to advance legislation that would spur the economy. The newest issue of Esquire even includes his crisp essay about the virtues of breakfasting in a diner.

The previous two GOP speakers, Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert, both secured their final re-elections before deciding to exit the leadership. Boehner has every incentive to repeat that pattern, winning one more term in Ohio before deciding for sure how to proceed in the Capitol.

One thing’s a pretty sure bet, though: You’ll never hear Boehner do what Harry Reid did Wednesday — talk about wanting to keep the keys to the corner office for another eight years.