Rep. John Boehner tucked himself into the comfy leather folds of a large armchair just off the House floor. He crossed his right leg at a sharp angle over his left knee, pulled out a Barclay filtered cigarette, lit up and took a long drag. The year was 1994.
The Speaker's Lobby was cool and quiet, majestic in its silence after a busy day of legislating. Boehner looked out the window onto the late October night, ornate lamps delicately lighting the East Front of the Capitol. He regarded me as I approached, with my question about the future.
I asked Boehner, who was then about to turn 45 years old the next month, if he thought the polling data circulating among GOP leaders was true, and Republicans actually had a chance to win a House majority for the first time in 40 years.
"I do," Boehner said. "It looks real."
When I mentioned to Boehner that being in the majority would mean heavy responsibilities for Republicans, Boehner nodded silently, smoke curling from the lengthening ash of a cigarette he wasn't even actively smoking any longer, because the future and its prospects had now consumed all of his attention. I asked Boehner if he thought his fellow Republicans were ready.
"It doesn't matter," Boehner said. "Sometimes things happen before you're ready."
Not this time.
John Boehner had been ready to resign his speakership for months and toyed with the idea as far back as 2012, when his office had to run an aggressive whip count to make sure he would be re-elected Speaker in 2013. Twelve House Republicans did not vote for him but Boehner still hung onto power.
In fact, Boehner's hold on the speakership was tenuous from the very beginning. Boehner has tottered atop a Republican majority built by a grassroots uprising that disdained long-serving House Republicans, like Boehner, whom they associated with fiscal recklessness (Medicare Part D and earmarks) and ethical laxity (Jack Abramoff and the House page sex scandal).
The Tea Party never liked Boehner, and he never liked them, but they were stuck with each other. And within the confines of the House GOP conference, Boehner was as shrewd an inside player as the Tea Party was tactically disorganized, a function of its unrelenting ideology.
This year, though, 25 Republicans voted for someone other than Boehner for House speaker. And that was it. Prominent Boehner staffers who saw the writing on the wall began slipping away from the Capitol. The latest threats of a vote to oust Boehner told him what he already knew. It was time to go.
"I don't want my members to have to go through this," Boehner said Friday of a vote to chuck him. "I certainly don't want the institution to go through this. And especially since I was thinking about walking out the door anyway. So it's the right time to do it and frankly, I'm entirely comfortable doing it."
The only reason Boehner survived January's uprising was because he happened to be presiding over the largest House GOP majority since 1929. He had votes to burn. In one of many great ironies, the larger Boehner's majority became, the more danger he faced. The larger GOP majority was younger, more restless and more conservative - and even Boehner loyalists were getting tired of the strife. Backing Boehner was triggering primary challenges in some GOP districts.
It's an amazing state of affairs for Boehner, the son of Cincinnati bar owner, who walked a crooked path to power.
Boehner might be the epitome of the GOP establishment now, but he was once a firebrand, an impetuous back-bencher infuriated by the cushy perks and soft corruption of the Washington elite.
In his early years in the House, he became a member of a group calling themselves the Gang of Seven. Rick Santorum was another member and together, he and Boehner are the most politically successful members of a crew that brought national attention to the House banking scandal.
They set in motion investigations into graft in the House Post Office that, once uncovered, led to the federal conviction of one of the most powerful Democrats in the House that Boehner was elected to in 1990 - Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski. Back then, Boehner, Santorum and the other "Gang" members did not wait for permission to agitate and pillory the House power structure. They just did it. And it worked so well, the seven even made a poster of themselves.
Boehner captured the attention of then-House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich who was looking for young hellions to help him build a GOP majority. The young Ohio representative understood publicity stunts and the imperative of raising money for GOP races yet to be won.
Boehner threw in with Gingrich, Tom Delay and Dick Armey, both of Texas, and Bill Paxon, the New Yorker who ran the congressional committee plotting a power shift after Bill Clinton's election as president in 1992.
Before Clinton was elected, Gingrich led a GOP revolt against President George H. W. Bush's decision to raise taxes in pursuit of deficit reduction. It marked the beginning of the cleavage in GOP ranks over "conservative principles" and "governing." Boehner was with Gingrich - on the side of (irony watch) radicals who openly mocked a Republican president and gleefully undercut his legislative agenda. Bush, it was said, had betrayed conservative principles and must suffer the consequences. Sound familiar?
Republicans won control of the House in 1994, and Boehner, after just two terms in the House, was elevated to House Republican conference chair. The young man in a hurry had a seat at the leadership table as it faced off against the Clinton White House. The intervening two years created two government shutdowns, as wrangling continued over a balanced budget, entitlements, welfare and defense spending.
Clinton may have won the politics, but Republicans won more policy than they lost. Here are two examples: first, Clinton went from refusing to negotiate a balanced budget to agreeing to one in seven years. Second, he signed welfare reform in the heat of the 1996 re-election campaign.
But the GOP leadership team began to fracture after the 1996 election. Gingrich's lack of discipline and the over-heated ambitions of DeLay, Armey and Boehner set deceit in motion. Conversations about unseating Gingrich commenced among them, but the slapdash "coup" never got off the ground. But it did expose disloyalty. DeLay fessed up. Armey pretended, unconvincingly, not to know.
Gingrich would be shown the door anyway, just two years later, after Republicans lost five seats in the 1998 midterm elections. Young Boehner, less cautious and more politically vulnerable than Armey and DeLay, was the fall guy, banished from leadership ranks and exiled to the Education and Workforce Committee.
The most coveted committee assignments are the ones related to the power of the purse - or just plain old power: Ways and Means, Commerce, Budget, Armed Services and Intelligence. Education and Workforce is by comparison a veritable Shawshank - the last place from which any sensible Republican would plot a return to power.
Yet Boehner plotted. He first made himself useful to new Speaker Dennis Hastert by cranking out legislation on, of all things, health care. Boehner was only a subcommittee chairman but he was more productive than many chairmen.
Hastert made him full committee chair in 2000, and after George W. Bush's election Boehner worked closely with ranking Democrat George Miller of California to produce the No Child Left Behind Act. That legislation carried Bush's demand for federal requirements that every state impose student proficiency tests and academic accountability measurements. The No Child Left Behind had been set in motion by President Reagan's 1983 report "A Nation At Risk." These staunchly conservative education initiatives begat the federal Common Core standards now (irony watch, again) roiling the Republican presidential race.
So, during the years that John Boehner was theoretically marooned in the backwaters of the Education and Workforce Committee, he underwent a change from the firebrand upstart who had risen up with Gingrich and fallen, into the member who was able to work his way back into the power by passing bills suitable for elegant signing-ceremony tables. Long-time GOP lobbyist Jack Howard once had this to say about Boehner's ability to adapt and make things happen: "He's the only guy I know who walk behind four people entering a revolving door and come out first."
In 2006, Boehner again donned the garb of a reformer. Majority Leader DeLay had already stepped down amid the Abramoff mess, and Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri was Hastert's hand-picked replacement. Blunt considered himself the heir apparent.
But Boehner campaigned on a lengthy policy manifesto and years of steady fund-raising for fellow Republican. Blunt won a plurality on the first ballot in a three-way race, but lost on the second ballot. Boehner knew where the votes were, and he knew where they would land on both ballots. Blunt did not. Boehner ran as the outsider with big ideas and galvanized (irony watch, yes, again) GOP conservatives to upset the establishment's carefully laid plans.
But Boehner's power trip was short-lived. Democrats won control of the House in 2006 and Boehner watched the sinking prospects of House Republicans during protracted battles over Iraq funding, the financial meltdown, TARP and the auto bailout.
Upon Barack Obama's election, it was Boehner and then-House Minority Leader Eric Cantor who galvanized unanimous House GOP opposition to the president's $787 billion stimulus bill. Boehner opposed the Affordable Care Act and Cap and Trade legislation that then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi rammed through the House.
At this stage, Boehner and the Tea Party were on the same side (irony watch). But the grassroots movement that rose in opposition to Obama was not of Boehner's making. He tried to harness Tea Party activism throughout 2010 and was more than mildly stunned the 63 seats Republicans won catapulted him into the Speaker's chair.
It was here the most important difference between the Gingrich speakership and the Boehner speakership emerged. Gingrich was the driving rhetorical and organizing force of the Republican majority in 1994. Every back-bencher in that new majority knew they were there because of Gingrich's advocacy and strategy. That meant they owed Gingrich their complete allegiance (remember, it was Gingrich's leadership circle, not the rank-and-file that contemplated a coup). For Boehner, the dynamic was exactly the opposite. The rank-and-file believed they created Boehner and he had to be loyal to them.
Boehner knew this and, for a time, used the combustibility of his conference to create a legislative crisis that would yield some progress for GOP priorities. The Fiscal Cliff standoff and shutdown did not undo Obamacare but it did settle a dispute over federal tax policy (irony watch) largely on GOP terms. Most of George W. Bush's income tax cuts - all the way up to $450,000 for couples - were made permanent.
When Bush passed them originally they were only on the books for a decade. The Budget Control Act also put in place sequestration spending cuts that hardline conservatives first opposed but now (irony watch) consider sacrosanct.
Boehner acquiesced to every demand for a vote to defund or otherwise eviscerate the Affordable Care Act. He also set in motion a federal law suit that may do more to undercut the law than any of these ritually ignored and patently futile floor votes.
On immigration, Boehner wanted to proceed with a step-by-step House process to counter the Senate's 2013 comprehensive immigration bill. But when the votes were not there Boehner, against his own legislative and political impulses, bowed to conservatives and didn't bring a single bill to the floor for consideration. That triggered Obama's executive actions that Boehner knew Republicans would never be able to stop because they had forfeited the legislative clout derived from drafting and passing competing House legislation.
Boehner, if he is mentioned at all, is a punch-line on the GOP presidential campaign trail. (At the Values Voter Summit, when Marco Rubio announced Boehner's resignation, Boehner became an applause line) The last Republican presidential candidate who mocked a sitting Republican speaker was Bob Dole in 1996. We all remember how well that worked out.
But the looming government shutdown - fueled by the Planned Parenthood video controversy- and frustration over being unable to block the Iran nuclear deal left House conservatives in a brooding, angry and vengeful mood.
"I got plenty of people following me," Boehner said today. "But this turmoil that's been churning a couple of months is not good for the members and not for the institution. If I wasn't planning on leaving here soon, I can tell you I would not have done this."
The Speaker, ever cagey, moved sooner than his opponents expected and has therefore made it harder, not easier, for them to topple the existing GOP leadership structure. The conservatives Boehner has ritually clashed with have been able to exert influence by withholding 30 to 50 votes on key legislation. They are adept at saying and voting "No." To elect a speaker outside of current GOP leadership ranks, they will have to build a coalition larger than their current circle of ideological purity.
Boehner was "ready" today to give up power.
But he's betting the GOP foes who drove him from it are not ready to seize it.