John Boehner Says So Long to His Friends

A wave of retirements has Tea Partiers eyeing the speaker’s chair

In January 2013, House Speaker John Boehner needed a favor from Dave Camp. The White House and congressional Republicans were fighting over whether income tax cuts for top earners should be allowed to expire to avert a budget crisis. (Remember the fiscal cliff?) Boehner had decided to accept the tax increase in exchange for making other cuts permanent, a concession to Democrats that would have Tea Partiers calling for his head. According to a person involved with the deal who wasn’t authorized to speak, Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a hater of tax hikes, stepped up to take charge of the legislation so his ally Boehner could distance himself from the agreement. “I was all alone on that one,” Camp recalls.

Boehner won’t have Camp to rely on much longer. The Michigan Republican announced on March 31 that he’s retiring after 12 terms. He’s the latest of several Boehner friends and protectors who’ve said they won’t seek reelection. They include Mike Rogers of Michigan, a longtime friend who owes his position as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee to Boehner; Doc Hastings of Washington, among the speaker’s most steadfast supporters, who’s quitting after 20 years; and Iowa’s Tom Latham, Boehner’s dinner buddy and closest Washington friend going back nearly two decades. Latham considered leaving in 2012 but stayed an extra term in part to help Boehner keep Latham’s seat from going to a Democrat in a presidential election year.

So far, 25 GOP House members have said they’re leaving at year’s end. Like Boehner, many are party-line Republicans who argue Democratic policies are wrongheaded but are frustrated with the obstinacy of Tea Partiers who attack fellow Republicans and equate the give and take of legislating with betrayal. Boehner became speaker in 2011, promising to run a more open House where Democrats and Republicans would battle it out to produce bills, however imperfect, that both sides could live with. Instead he’s spent most of his time trying and often failing to keep his right wing from grinding the institution to a halt.

His supporters have stood with him during bitter intraparty battles over the budget and debt ceiling, and contentious issues like immigration, when conservative Republicans tried to undermine Boehner and take control of the agenda. Some GOP veterans no longer want to fight so hard to get so little done. “You have a lot of moderate members looking at things and wondering where their role is in this process,” says Tom Davis, a former House member from Virginia. “These are some of Boehner’s staunchest allies.”

Once they’re gone, he’ll have a harder time keeping control of his unruly flock. Boehner was narrowly reelected speaker in 2013, with conservatives openly calling for his defeat. They’ve made no secret of their desire to try once again to replace him with a more hard-line leader when he’s up for reelection in January, and see opportunity in the departures of so many long-serving members. “We’re going to have a new speaker,” says Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, one of 12 Republicans who didn’t vote for Boehner for speaker in 2013. “Looks like a whole bunch of folks are leaving who are key to him staying as speaker.”

In some ways, Boehner has always been an unlikely choice to lead his party. Though he’s been in Congress since 1991 and helped Newt Gingrich foment the 1994 Republican takeover of the House, Boehner stands outside Washington’s social-climbing political establishment. He has no close friends among the GOP leadership—his No. 2, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who plainly covets the speaker’s chair, is more of a rival than an ally. Instead, the speaker hangs out with rank-and-file Republicans. He avoids restaurants where politicians and lobbyists go to be seen, sticking to joints near his Capitol Hill apartment, where he can eat among the regulars without drawing attention. “I’d like to think he’d miss our nighttime glass of red wine and having dinner together,” says Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, a close Boehner friend and regular dining companion who’s also retiring this year. “I will miss that.”

To shore up his support, Boehner will need to make new friends in a House where more than half of the chamber’s 233 Republicans were elected after he took over his party’s leadership in 2007. Boehner has held on to his job despite restlessness in the ranks in part because of relentless fundraising on behalf of fellow Republicans. He spread around more than $54 million in 2013, headlining or hosting almost 100 fundraisers, according to his campaign office.

Boehner doesn’t seem very concerned about trying to win over Republican detractors who are aiming to unseat him. Since October, when conservatives forced an unpopular partial shutdown of the federal government, he’s stopped disguising his disdain for Tea Party groups and their tactics, calculating that enough other Republicans are fed up, too. “He’s been able to win the confidence of this conference when we were in the majority, keep it after we lost the majority, and keep it during the creation of a new majority,” says Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and Boehner friend. “It suggests someone with enormous staying power.”

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