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Boehner exits, triggering fight for US House speaker

Michael Mathes
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Speaker of the House John Boehner will step down next month

Speaker of the House John Boehner will step down next month (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

Washington (AFP) - Bitter internal divisions in the Republican Party boiled over Friday with the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, whose exit has sparked what could be a bruising battle to replace him.

Boehner had spent years repelling rebellious conservatives who accused him of the lacking fire to battle Barack Obama and fellow Democrats. Now the party's far-right flank could seek to install one of their own, or at least a Republican more willing to press a conservative agenda.

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, even amid the 2016 presidential election campaign.

"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 even 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 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.

Several Republicans said they believed Boehner's announcement reduces the near-term risk of shutdown.

But while there was prolonged applause inside the caucus meeting, as members expressed appreciation to a speaker who often found himself squaring off against Obama and Tea Party Republicans at the same time, some expressed anger.

"The honor of John Boehner this morning stands in sharp contrast to the self-serving idiocy of those in our party who seek to continually divide us," House Republican David Jolly told reporters, speaking of the group he dubbed the "shut-down caucus."

"We've got some whitewater ahead of us," added congressman Steve Womack.

"You can change the faces and the names in the leadership chairs, but the pressures are still going to remain the same."

- Who's next? -

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 more to fight Obama's immigration and healthcare policies.

Conservative Republican Tim Huelskamp, who has clashed with Boehner, said this time the speaker would not have had the support if a motion to oust him came to a floor vote.

"Today the establishment lost," Huelskamp tweeted.

Obama, who said the resignation took him by surprise, 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 would put him second in line of succession to the presidency after the vice president.

Boehner said McCarthy "would make an excellent speaker." But with core conservatives baying for establishment blood, McCarthy moving up is not a foregone conclusion.

Amid the replacement scramble, one challenger -- congressman Daniel Webster, who ran against Boehner in January and received 12 votes -- already suggested he would seek the gavel.

- 'Eternally grateful' -

An emboldened conservative wing will be eager to put its stamp on the new leadership.

Raul Labrador, a member of the House "Freedom Caucus" that has stood up to Boehner, said that while it was not yet time to openly debate a 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 deep tumult, while 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.

Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi meanwhile warned of the "seismic" impact of Boehner's resignation, saying his departure in turbulent times "is a stark indication of the disarray of the House Republicans."