Editorial: Boehner's resignation reflects fight for soul of GOP

Speaker John Boehner announced Friday that he would leave at the end of October.
Speaker John Boehner announced Friday that he would leave at the end of October.
Published Sep. 25, 2015

John Boehner has had enough. The U.S. House speaker's stunning resignation Friday indicates he is as tired of the political infighting in Washington as most Americans. It reflects the deep ideological divisions in Washington and the nation, and it emboldens the most extreme conservatives in Congress and in the crowded field of Republican candidates for president. Expect more dysfunction in the dysfunctional House and more gridlock at least until next year's election.

A day after the pope's historic speech to Congress, Boehner announced he would leave on his own terms at the end of October rather than continue to fend off efforts by perhaps 30 House Republicans intent on ousting him. The silver lining is that in exchange for Boehner's head, those conservatives will go along with passing a clean spending bill next week to avoid a shutdown and keep the federal government open until mid December. But that is a temporary victory for common sense, and the deep divide within the Republican Party just got more difficult to navigate.

This has been the least productive period for Congress in history. Significant issues such as immigration and climate change are unresolved, and even the routine business of running government has veered from crisis to crisis. There are votes coming up this fall to raise the federal debt ceiling. A bill funding transportation has been stalled. The Export-Import Bank's future is up in the air. On and on and on — even with Republicans controlling both the House and Senate. Even mainstream conservatives such as Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, had grown frustrated by the inaction and concluded it was time for a change in House leadership.

Yet the gridlock is likely to get worse before it gets better. Boehner was hardly a moderate speaker. He refused to bring immigration reform legislation passed by the Senate to a House vote in 2013. He allowed the government to be shut down for 16 days that same year over a fight over the Affordable Care Act, which the House has voted to repeal more than 50 times. He agrees with defunding Planned Parenthood even as he wanted to avoid using that issue to force another shutdown next week.

At its most basic level, this is a fight for the soul of the Republican Party. It is a fight between conservatives who want to govern and those who place ideological purity and fighting Democrats above all else. That fault line can be seen even among House Republicans from Tampa Bay. Jolly is a conservative who wants government to function. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Brooksville, is a tea party conservative who would rather shut down the government than compromise, lost his spot on the Rules Committee when he voted against keeping Boehner as speaker and called Boehner's resignation on Friday a move to "save this country and save this nation.''

What Boehner did more than once was save the nation from conservative ideologues like Nugent. Now the speaker is gone, and it's not at all clear who can keep them in check so government can function.