CAPITOL HILL - U.S. House Speaker John Boehner sent shock waves throughout Washington early Friday when he announced that he would resign from one of the most powerful positions in the U.S. government and leave Congress at the end of October.
The bombshell came one day after Pope Francis made history by addressing a joint meeting of Congress, at Boehner's invitation. Boehner, a devout Catholic, had invited three popes to address lawmakers and had waited 20 years for one to accept.
"This is big stuff for a little Catholic boy!" he said.
Boehner wept openly during the pope's address, and again afterward as he stood with him on the speaker's balcony to greet crowds.
Boehner abruptly announced he would resign in a closed-door meeting with his fellow Republicans. Some of his party's most conservative members had been threatening to challenge his leadership, saying he was too prone to compromise with Democrats. Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina and other members of the House Freedom Caucus had led the charge.
After the meeting, Boehner canceled a morning news conference. When he finally spoke to reporters in the afternoon, he seemed almost relieved. He walked into the House studio singing the Disney song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah."
But he quickly got emotional about his 25 years in Congress and five years as speaker, choking back tears as he said: “It has been an honor to serve in this institution.”
Without pointing fingers at any individual or group, Boehner explained why he is leaving: “My first job as speaker is to protect the institution. It had become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California called Boehner's decision “seismic.”
The resignation "is a stark indication of the disarray of the House Republicans, a demonstration of their obsession with shutting down government at the expense of women's health, and a sign of the failure of the House Republicans to be willing to engage in dialogue for the good of the American people," she said.
Boehner has been under intense pressure from conservative members, with another battle brewing as a current funding measure for the federal government expires October 1. Some conservatives have said they would not vote for any measure that included money for the women's reproductive health group Planned Parenthood, which also performs abortions.
Boehner did not say what he planned to do next week, but analysts said he was now likely to be freer to pass a "clean" spending bill — one that lacks the effort to defund Planned Parenthood — with the help of Democrats in the House.
Reacting to the news, President Barack Obama said Boehner seemed to realize those who govern cannot get everything they want.
“We have obviously had a lot of disagreements, and politically we are at the opposite end of the spectrum," Obama said. "But he has always conducted himself with civility and courtesy with me.”
Republican pesidential candidate Jeb Bush praised the House speaker's years of dedication to public service on Twitter.
John Boehner dedicated his life to public service. Bringing the Holy Father to Congress was a fitting cap to a great career.— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) September 25, 2015
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, also reacted to the news on Twitter, where he praised his political adversary.
By ousting a good man like Speaker Boehner -- someone who understood the art of compromise -- the party of Eisenhower and Reagan is no more.— Senator Harry Reid (@SenatorReid) September 25, 2015
Some conservative Republicans welcomed Boehner’s resignation, including two senators who are running for president in 2016, Florida's Marco Rubio and Texas' Ted Cruz.
Analyst Norm Ornstein said the presidential campaign exacerbates tensions that were already there among different factions in the Republican Party: “Right now, those dominant, anti-establishment radical forces inside Congress, the presidential candidates who are appealing to them and the larger group out there in the electorate are demanding shutdowns and actions that will bring Obama to his knees.”
Talk quickly turned to who would be the next House speaker, the person who is third in the U.S. presidential line of succession, behind the president and vice president. Boehner said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California would make an excellent speaker.
But first, Boehner himself will have to try to get a funding bill passed by October 1 to avoid another partial government shutdown.
After five stormy years as speaker, he has just a few more weeks of a very difficult job.