Speaker John Boehner smiled and sang the Disney tune “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” before confirming the stunning news that he woke up Friday and decided to step down from his post and retire after 25 years in the House. But black leaders in Washington and around the country are among those pondering what a Congress without Boehner will look like.
Boehner told reporters at a press conference that his decision to leave was prompted by the desire to avoid “prolonged leadership turmoil” in the House — leading some to speculate whether the veteran lawmaker is leaving entirely on his own terms.
Such a development will no doubt have implications for an already hostile and divisive political climate that is stalling progress in general -- and in particular, legislation that could impact thousands of African-Americans.
“When you have a divided caucus … it means that you’re in for a rough time,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who called Boehner on Thursday night after Pope Francis’ address to a joint session of Congress to congratulate him on the historic event, a lifelong dream for the veteran lawmaker and devout Catholic.
“You have people who are undermining you and intent on getting you out because they want someone like them to take over, and so that’s not an easy chore,” Waters continued. “He’s been holding it together. He has persevered.”
“One advantage of this … is that it causes the American people to pay attention to the dysfunction of Washington and the reason for it.” -- Rep. G.K. Butterfield
Watching Boehner and the pope together on Thursday, Waters said she reflected on coming into Congress with him a generation ago as freshman representatives and the relationship they’ve shared as she watched him work hard to rise to the chamber’s highest post.
First elected to Congress in 1990, Boehner was voted speaker on November 17, 2010 — his 61st birthday.
“He arrived because of his hard work, but since he has been speaker, he’s had to deal with big division,” Waters said. “There are a lot of things that he would’ve liked to have done that he wasn’t able to do.”
Over the past five years, Boehner has clashed with a conservative Republican base uninterested in bipartisanship compromise and unwavering in its opposition to the Obama administration’s priorities.
Like most, Waters was not expecting Friday’s announcement, but she wasn’t altogether surprised. Though he didn’t tell her about his plans to leave, Waters said that Boehner told her several months ago that “he had acquired a condo in Florida” -- which she took as a sign that he was already thinking about his exit.
Waters said that regardless of who succeeds Boehner, Democrats aren’t looking to play a role in the coming leadership fight and will deal with whomever takes his place.
“As long as we’re not in control, our job is hard,” she said. “We have to be the loyal opposition. We, philosophically, are different; we have different goals.”
Boehner’s announcement comes amid a looming battle over the debt limit which could force a government shutdown in November. Members of his conference have dug in, saying they wouldn’t vote for a bill that didn’t include defunding of Planned Parenthood.
“It looks like leadership in the House may go from bad to worse,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “While John Boehner was never a champion of women’s health in this country, even he recognized that defunding Planned Parenthood wasn’t what the American people wanted.”
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson called Boehner a leader “before his time” for his efforts to curtail government spending and said his service “has been marked by a demeanor and style many should learn to copy.”
Boehner told reporters his exit now is an effort to “preserve the institution” of the House of Representatives and attempt to avoid partisan infighting, but Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) said Boehner likely decided he didn’t want to stick around for the squabbling and that his exit is concerning.
“I’m afraid that it may make things much worse,” Lewis told MSNBC’s Tamron Hall on Friday. “John Boehner is a good and decent man. I’ve known him since he’s been in the Congress and he’s trying to do his very, very best. I think he made up his mind, he had an executive session with himself, and said, ‘I’m not going to take it anymore’ and decided to leave and to give it up.”
It’s up to the party he leaves behind to figure out the way forward, said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“If not, it’s going to be the demise of the Republican majority in the House,” said Butterfield (D-N.C.) “But Democrats don’t need to contribute to their demise; we need to let them self destruct -- and they will.”
Butterfield didn’t have any thoughts on who Boehner’s successor might be, but speculated that person will likely be “to the right” politically of the outgoing speaker, which could make more difficult looming fights on the budget (on the agenda next week), transportation, and the debt limit.
“One advantage of this … is that it causes the American people to pay attention to the dysfunction of Washington and the reason for it,” Butterfield said.
Still, with five weeks left at the helm -- Boehner said he’ll vacate his post on October 30 -- he could decide to “go big” on an issue like immigration or voting rights, which have both stalled in Congress.
“It could embolden him,” Butterfield said.