(CNN) — House Speaker John Boehner on Friday seized control of an ending that was beginning to feel inevitable.
Boehner had wanted to end his run last year, but was concerned about destabilizing the House Republican caucus. He was ready to announce his resignation on his birthday this November. But Friday, one day after the emotional, historic visit by Pope Francis to Capitol Hill, Boehner found his moment.
“I decided today is the day I’m going to do this, simple as that,” Boehner said at a Capitol Hill press conference, saying his decision came after a night of sleep and prayers.
The decision marked a tumultuous end to Boehner’s nearly six-year tenure leading the fractured Republican caucus, a time marked by repeated fiscal clashes with the White House, failed deal-makings with President Barack Obama and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, but also a rare bipartisan accord on trade and the historic papal visit.
Boehner was elevated to the speakership thanks to the power of tea party candidates in 2010 and then limited by what he could accomplish because of them. The conservative bloc of lawmakers consistently pressed Boehner to take a harder line with Obama and Democrats, a strategy Boehner, a consummate dealmaker, did not always embrace.
Yes, he could have fought for his job on the House floor this fall, prompting an ugly battle where he would have to rely on Democratic vote — something that would have badly undermined his standing in the Republican Party. He could have stayed as Speaker and dealt with a tumultuous session — where he would have to cut major fiscal deals that would have prompted an angry revolt from the right.
He could continue to criss-cross the country, raising big bucks for his party even as his future as Speaker continued to remain in doubt. Or he could have tightened his grip by trying to punish conservative agitators — a tactic he has been resistant to do during his leadership tenure.
Friday, Boehner said he didn’t want to put himself or the House through it. He had already stayed on longer than he had wanted to, running again for Speaker this January after his then-No. 2, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, lost his seat.
“It’s become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution,” Boehner told reporters. “This isn’t about me. It’s about the people, it’s about the institution.”
The timing may have been right for Boehner — but it stunned the House GOP Conference Friday morning, which had been meeting to discuss a way forward on funding legislation. Boehner made the announcement — and choked up. Others did too.
“A lot of grown men and women were crying, especially those who know him the most,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-New York.
Ohio GOP Rep. Steve Chabot called the mood “somber” and said there were tears from Boehner but also from other members in the room who listened to his remarks.
“I got choked up,” Chabot said.
It was almost an ideal time for Boehner to step aside. His new grandchild had been blessed by the Pope a day before, and he could leave, in many ways, on a high note after the emotional experience of the leader of his church addressing the chamber a day before.
The decision now puts pressure on conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, who have sought a bigger seat at the leadership table to try to find a consensus candidate, though it will be hard to win support from the very sizable Boehner wing of the caucus. Rep. Raul Labrador, who ran unsuccessfully for Majority Leader in January, declined to say if he was interested in the job.
But Boehner allies are pushing hard for his chief deputy, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who declined to declare he was running for Speaker Friday. He added that he didn’t know Boehner’s plan to resign ahead of time and was “shocked” by the announcement.
McCarthy, R-California, said Boehner has shown “a great deal of commitment to this conference. When you think about it, his entrance helped us win the first majority, served in leadership, committee chair and came back and helped us win another majority. History will be kind.”
Boehner told nobody other than his wife until Friday morning, when he began to inform senior staff. And he informed McCarthy just minutes before he told the rest of the House GOP Conference.
It was clear it was ultimately a very personal decision. Boehner and his allies had grown frustrated, having taken his party back to the majority in 2010 and grown the GOP conference to historic levels in 2014, only to see a group of conservative agitators try to take him down. Twenty-five Republicans voted in January to eject him from the speakership, and it was possible that that number could have grown past 29, forcing Boehner to rely on Democrats to keep him in the speakership.
Rep. Steve Womack, R-Arkansas, said as he left the conference meeting, “it is and it isn’t” shocking. If there was ever a time to resign, Womack said, it is now.