The evening following historic visit to the Capitol by Pope Francis—a visit made possible by his invitation—Speaker of the House John Boehner told his chief of staff it might be time to call it a career.
He told his chief, Mike Sommers, “he needed to put team before self” but that he’d sleep on it first to be sure.
So, Friday morning Boehner rose early and went about his routine: a stop at Starbucks, some reading, then a visit to Pete’s Diner—a local greasy spoon made famous-for-D.C. by Boehner’s visits. By the time he got back home, Boehner knew he was ready.
“I told my wife,” Boehner said. “She said, ‘Good.’”
He then headed to Capitol Hill, where his staff was getting ready for their 8:45 meeting.
Boehner said he “kind of walked in before I opened the House and told them. ‘This is the day.’”
“It’s going to happen someday,” he added. “Why not today?”
And that’s how it came to be, not 24 hours after the pope appeared on Capitol Hill, that Boehner stunned his fellow Republicans by announcing he would resign next month.
Among those Boehner shocked: Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is expected to run to for Boehner’s job.
“I told Mr. McCarthy about two minutes before I spoke what I was going to do, I had to tell him five times because he didn’t believe me,” Boehner said.
The lifelong Catholic was especially emotional as Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., Thursday—and now we know that there is was a deeper significance to those tears.
Boehner became emotional again Friday as he recounted a moment with Pope Francis, when two leaders briefly found themselves alone.
“The pope grabbed my left arm and said some very kind words to me about my commitment to kids,” he said, his eyes starting to tear. “The pope puts his arm around me and pulls me to him and says, ‘Please pray for me,’” Boehner said.
The Ohio Republican said he had only planned to serve until the end of 2014, but Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s embarrassing primary defeat changed the calculation. He then decided to announce his decision on November 17, his 66th birthday, but faced with a protracted fight for leadership between now and then, decided it was time.
“Listen, it was never about the vote, all right?” he said. “ There was never any doubt about whether I could survive the vote. But I don’t want my members to have to go through this. I certainly don’t want the institution to go through this. And so—especially when, you know, I knew I was—I was thinking about walking out the door anyway.”
The speaker was known for saying prayers while meeting with his Republican colleagues. During a dark moment in the fiscal cliff negotiations in 2012, Boehner recited the Serenity Prayer before member of the House Republican Conference—“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
In an homage to Pope Francis, Boehner recited a different prayer on Friday morning as he broke the news to his colleagues: “The Prayer of Saint Francis,” which ends: “It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”
In a lot of ways, the very people who made Boehner Speaker of the House are the people who made his life the hardest. The Tea Party vaulted Boehner into the job in 2010. At that time Boehner said he was committed to working their reforms in this newly minted majority, but year after year their demands became more and more untenable and they became impossible to please.
For example, during the run-up to the first government shutdown in 2011, Boehner saw a carefully brokered deal—dubbed “the grand bargain,” with the Senate and the White House—jettisoned after his conference refused to play ball. And that was only the beginning of the debt-limit fights that have become commonplace every few months.
Boehner’s coming departure leaves the House Republican leadership uncertain as Congress faces a number of challenges in coming weeks, including the possibility of a government shutdown. So, amid the other issues that House Republicans must confront, they must also choose a new leader.
“The top job in the House is open… it’s a shake-up,” Republican Rep. Hal Rogers said.
“We’ve got a lot of capable people, both inside leadership and outside leadership… I don’t think there will be a shortage of good candidates,” added Rep. Tom Cole.
While uncertainty will continue to swirl about his replace, one thing was certain on Friday—Boehner was thrilled to be on his way out.
Asked if he was relieved to be leaving, Boehner sang back to the reporter, “Zippidy do-da, zippidy day!”
— with additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff