Bitter internal divisions in the Republican Party boiled over Friday with the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, who spent years repelling rebellious conservatives who accused him of lacking fire to battle Barack Obama and his Democrats.
Just one day after fulfilling his personal 20-year dream of bringing the pope before Congress, Boehner — who openly wept Thursday beside the pontiff — told his Republican flock that he will resign at the end of October.
The 65-year-old\’s sudden departure after a quarter century in Congress and nearly five years in the Speaker\’s chair will spark an intense battle for control of the House as the United States gears up for a presidential election in November 2016.
"I know good things lie ahead for this House, in this country, and I\’m proud of what we have accomplished," a tearful Boehner told a press conference, showing more emotion when he proclaimed that "it has been an honor to serve in this institution."
But while he said his first job was to protect the House, "it has become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution."
The decision — which Boehner said he made Friday morning after mulling it overnight — shocked Washington.
House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers called it "a shake-up," coming just as Congress struggles to avoid a government shutdown that is just six days away, with lawmakers feuding over funding for federal operations.
Rogers said Boehner\’s announcement reduces the near-term risk of shutdown. But he said lawmakers will watch carefully to see whether one of the conservatives pressing for Boehner\’s ouster would take over the top job.
The intense tug of war between leadership and hardcore conservatives, who have challenged Boehner on everything from federal spending and government shutdowns to anti-abortion fights, has often spilled into the open.
In January he narrowly won a third term as speaker, surviving a stiff challenge from conservatives furious that he had not done enough to fight Obama\’s immigration and healthcare policies.
"Today the establishment lost," tweeted conservative Republican Tim Huelskamp, who has clashed with Boehner.
Obama said he too was taken by surprise and called Boehner a "patriot."
"We have obviously had a lot of disagreements and politically we\’re at different ends of the spectrum, but I will tell you he has always conducted himself with courtesy and civility with me," Obama said, adding that Boehner understood the art of compromise.
But Obama warned that he and the new Speaker "can have significant differences on issues, but that doesn\’t mean you shut down the government. That doesn\’t mean you risk the full faith and credit of the United States."
A key question now is whether Boehner\’s deputy, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, can win the speakership, which puts him second in line of succession to the presidency, after the vice president.
With core conservatives baying for establishment blood that is by no means a foregone conclusion.
A stone-faced McCarthy declined to answer reporters\’ questions after the meeting where Boehner dropped his bomb.
"Now is the time for our conference to focus on healing and unifying to face the challenges ahead," McCarthy said in a statement.
In a signal that unity may not be the first step, the news of Boehner\’s resignation was met with a roar and a standing ovation when it was announced at a conservative summit in Washington.
The succession battle could plunge the House into political turmoil, with an emboldened conservative wing eager to put its stamp on the new leadership.
Conservative Raul Labrador said that while it was not yet time to openly debate Boehner\’s successor, "I am committed to supporting leaders who will keep our promise to the American people to fight for real change in Washington."
As the behind-the-scenes scramble kicked into overdrive, tributes poured in for the man who led the House through some of its deepest tumult in a generation, while also securing an unprecedented Republican House majority.
"I am eternally grateful for the steady, principled leadership Speaker Boehner has provided the House," said the chamber\’s number three Republican, Steve Scalise.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, one of the Democrats who worked most closely with Boehner on crunch negotiations over spending, offered glowing praise for his departing friend.