Longtime allies Boehner, LaTourette had already gone their separate ways

At around 10 p.m. on the night before he announced his retirement from Congress, Rep. Steve LaTourette got a call at home from one of his closest friends: Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

LaTourette’s decision had already leaked out to the press, and the time for arm-twisting had passed.

“He said he loves me, and I told him I love him, and that’s enough for me,” the centrist Ohio Republican recalled.

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When Boehner tries to steer the conservative House Republican conference through a series of big policy decisions in 2013, he’ll have to do so without a longtime ally and booster.

Yet to a great extent, Boehner and LaTourette had long since gone their separate ways, forced apart by the widening chasm between the conservative heart of the House GOP and the space closer to the political center that LaTourette occupied.

LaTourette, whose election to the House in 1994 followed Boehner’s by four years, had little appetite for the brinksmanship battles over spending and the deficit that it was Boehner’s job as Speaker to lead.

“He’s got one of the toughest jobs in Washington, and it’s very difficult,” LaTourette said of Boehner, moments after he made one last pre-election bid for a bipartisan agreement to avert the year-end fiscal cliff.

After Boehner’s bid for a grand bargain with President Obama collapsed in July 2011, LaTourette kept pushing – with Boehner’s blessing, but without much of his help. A year later, the frustration had become too much for the one-time country prosecutor. His own bid to build support for a bipartisan budget blueprint went down in flames, and he watched as Congress failed to complete legislation that had historically been routine, like a long-term highway bill. LaTourette found his path to a more powerful position on a pair of House committees blocked by other Republicans, although he has denied this is a reason for his departure, calling it a “red herring.”

With the loss of friend and a staunch grand bargain advocate, Boehner’s job is unlikely to get easier. Another close ally of the Speaker, Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) is in a close re-election fight against a fellow lawmaker, Rep. Leonard Boswell (D). On Thursday, LaTourette said he didn’t believe his continued presence in Congress could overcome the polarization preventing bipartisan action on the nation’s top priorities.

“The current atmosphere…” he lamented, “it’s a little bit like an alcoholic in my mind. I think the place has to hit bottom before they realize it has a problem and begin to fix it.”

Neither Boehner nor LaTourette would say whether the Speaker ever tried to persuade him to stay.

Asked by The Hill whether he shared LaTourette’s view that the partisanship in Washington was similar to alcoholism, Boehner gave a careful response.

“Steve and I have had several conversations, and you can imagine -- he's one of my dear friends. I certainly didn't want him to leave,” Boehner said Thursday at his weekly press conference. “But, you know, members tend to reflect their constituents. I've been around here awhile. I've watched this process. And the American people are probably more polarized now than any time since I've been here. And as a result we see that polarization reflected here in the halls of Congress. And even though both sides have some sharply different views and ideologies, our job is still to find the common ground.”

Republican lawmakers and aides said LaTourette’s decision was a surprise, but not a complete shock.

“I had tried to encourage him to stay,” said one House Republican close to LaTourette, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It was frustration he had, and he was pretty vocal about his frustrations. It shouldn’t be a surprise to people about his frustration about the place.”

LaTourette is known to loyally defend Boehner in private conference meetings. But he has publicly chafed at the influence that conservative freshmen have had on the leadership, and he has criticized leadership-backed legislation, most notably the GOP five-year highway bill that Boehner considered a top priority before it failed to get off the House floor.

The GOP lawmaker acknowledged the occasional strain in the Boehner-LaTourette relationship over the last year but said any irritation the two men have had with each other was commonplace “in relationships like that.”

“But no, there’s not an erosion of a friendship,” the Republican said. “They’re still very close.”

As for the future, LaTourette said he did not know what he would do next, but he hinted he would stay active in politics. As for whether he could have more influence outside of Congress, he wasn’t sure. “I haven’t been doing so good on the inside, so I’m going to give the outside a shot,” he quipped.

Bernie Becker contributed.