When the Nov. 3 deadline to raise the debt limit rolls around next week, John A. Boehner should be resting easy and enjoying his new golf cart . Holding up a box of tissues before assuming the podium, Boehner stood before his colleagues Thursday to say goodbye.
"I leave with no regrets or burdens," he said.
"If anything, I leave as I started — just a regular guy humbled by the chance to do a big job," he said in his farewell speech to Congress. "That’s what I’m most proud of — that I’m still just me."
After nearly 25 years in Congress, Boehner's leaving the Capitol this week with plenty of his signature tears, as well as the satisfaction of having shepherded a budget deal that keeps the government open and lifts that ceiling.
“These last three or four days trying to get this agreement together certainly weren't easy, but, you know, when you sign up for the job, you have to take everything that comes at you,” Boehner said at his final press conference Tuesday.
As speaker, he took on a lot. And he hasn't been shy about the invidious and isolating nature of that responsibility.
The GOP conference he leaves behind, and his position in it, looks very different from when he first came to Congress in 1991.
The Ohio Republican has always been a prominent figure in the conference — he was elected conference chairman after just two terms in Congress.
But since the GOP won the majority in 2010 and Boehner was first elected speaker, the conference's right wing has fractured, with its most conservative members making him their target.
Boehner was re-elected to a third term as speaker with 25 defections in January — the most in 150 years — and he since faced a motion to vacate his chair . Ever since his retirement announcement, the morning after hosting Pope Francis at the Capitol , the conference’s right flank, and its outside cheerleaders, have claimed victory for dethroning Boehner and his agenda. But that may have been premature.
In many ways, Boehner’s retirement has allowed him to do what he could not do before — “to clean the barn,” as he’s said, and push past the acrimony to get his legislative priorities accomplished.
“I actually think, and this is kind of sad, his best week as speaker has been this week,” former Ohio Rep. Steven C. LaTourette told CQ Roll Call Thursday, pointing to legislation that passed the House earlier this week to re-open the Export-Import Bank and the budget deal that the House passed Wednesday. “Speaker Boehner will take a lot of arrows from a lot of folks for doing it,” former Iowa Rep. Tom Latham, a close Boehner ally, told CQ Roll Call about the speaker's role in pushing the deal. “But he thinks it’s the right thing to do.”
He ends his speakership with a more personal victory. Last week, he introduced legislation to reauthorize school vouchers in the District of Columbia — an issue that's been important to him since his earliest days as speaker. Achieving reauthorization, he said at his Tuesday press conference was the “best day” of his speakership. Singling out his Democratic colleagues when addressing Congress Thursday, Boehner suggested that together they had achieved "more work across the aisle" in the past five years than during his whole time in Congress.
His biggest regret? “Not getting the budget deal with President Obama in 2011 still stings,” he told reporters Wednesday.
But more than any single legislative accomplishment — and there were many, his former colleagues said, from bipartisan negotiations on budget deals, to the doc fix and No Child Left Behind — what they’ll remember him for is his decorum and even temper.
“ John is the speaker that our founders envisioned. The civil, quiet leader. The listener. And then the person who says, ‘OK, we gotta get it done,'” longtime Boehner adviser Terry Holt, now a founding partner at strategic communications firm HDMK, told CQ Roll Call Thursday. Former Pennsylvania Rep. Jim Gerlach called Boehner “the kind of guy who inspired confidence in other members.” LaTourette, another longtime Boehner ally, agreed. “He brought a calmness to the House, or tried to, that made it a pleasure to get up and go to work.”
He comes from an era when members worked to help each other — on the floor and in their districts, Holt said.
Boehner helped build and reinforce his party’s ranks, and his retirement already has party operatives wondering how they'll fill recreate his fundraising prowess .
After doing so much to strengthen his party, how has Boehner felt about his conference's most conservative members, some of whom rode the 2010 wave that preceded his election as speaker, making his job more difficult?
Mostly, Holt said, Boehner has been disappointed by the intraparty friction. He hasn’t taken opposition from the House Freedom Caucus personally, though, Latham said. Just after his first re-election as speaker in 2013, when nine GOP members broke ranks, Boehner told his defectors , "I don’t hold grudges, and my door is always open to you.”
That's who he is, Latham said. “Despite what some people say, he really believes in the process and tries to empower individual members,” he added. But if Boehner’s accomplishments this week are indicative of what could have been, LaTourette thinks Boehner may have been too respectful of the far-right's mounting opposition toward him.
“If he had a failing, it’s that he was slow to see it,” said LaTourette, who's president of Main Street Partnership, a group that supports centrist, business friendly Republicans.
“And then, once he saw it, he believed that he could get along and move things forward by turning the other check. But the fact of the matter is that he ran out of cheeks.”
LaTourette recalled a Team Boehner meeting when the speaker, who was normally reluctant to be punitive, said he would consider banning conference troublemakers from presiding over the floor. “We thought, 'What? No one wants to preside over the House to begin with,'” La Tourette said. “And he was nervous about it. He just wouldn’t go where he had to go. And quite frankly where he went this last week.”
With the barn tidied, Paul D. Ryan in place , and his official resignation letter headed to Gov. John Kasich's desk, Boehner's attention may turn to the Buckeye State Republicans gearing up to replace him in the 8th District.
The 13-term member hasn’t said what his next step will be after leaving Washington Friday afternoon. “I think, when he leaves, he’d really like it to be in the rearview mirror,” LaTourette said. In a Tuesday night floor speech honoring his Ohio colleague , Columbus-area Rep. Steve Stivers echoed that prediction.
"It goes without saying that we'll miss John Boehner more than he'll miss us."