Boehner’s top 10 moments in Congress

After nearly a quarter-century in the public spotlight, Speaker John Boehner is returning to private life.

The Ohio Republican will walk out of the Capitol for the final time as a member of Congress Thursday, just hours after he hands over the reins to his GOP successor, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Over the course of Boehner’s 24 years in the lower chamber, including almost five as Speaker, the son of a barkeep has earned a reputation for his candor and salty language, perpetual tan, open display of emotion and his ability to repeatedly bounce back from adversity.

Here’s The Hill’s highlight reel of Boehner’s top 10 moments in Congress, both the highs and the lows

1. The Gang of Seven

Boehner was part of the House’s so-called Gang of Seven, a group of rebel freshmen elected in 1990 credited with bringing attention to corruption scandals.

They successfully pushed for closing the House bank following revelations in 1992 that many lawmakers had overdrawn their accounts without penalties. The gang also forced Democratic leadership to address drug sales and money-laundering schemes at the Congressional Post Office.

Boehner and another Gang of Seven member, then-Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), later helped craft the Contract with America — the cornerstone of the “Republican Revolution” that handed House Republicans the majority in the 1994 elections.

“The liberal Democrat establishment in Washington doesn’t understand the concept of a contract because they don’t understand the meaning or the power of a kept promise,” Boehner said in a fiery floor speech in September 1994. 

2. Handing out checks from tobacco lobbyists on the House floor

Boehner has a reputation as a chain-smoker (his Camels are usually accompanied by a glass of Merlot). Lawmakers who inherited Boehner’s offices on Capitol Hill — including Nancy Pelosi after she lost the Speakership in 2010 — complained that the rooms reeked of smoke.

But Boehner’s support of the tobacco industry extended well beyond his cigarette purchases. While serving as the No. 4 Republican in 1996, Boehner was caught passing out checks from tobacco lobbyists to fellow GOP colleagues on the House floor. He didn’t break any rules, but he later said he regretted it.

In 2008, Boehner gave a floor speech calling a bill to expand the Federal Drug Administration’s jurisdiction over the tobacco industry a “bone-headed idea.”

The longest-serving member of Congress in history, former Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), then made a startling prediction: “The minority leader, the distinguished gentleman, is going to be amongst the next to die.”

Cracking a smile, Dingell added: “I am trying to save him, as the rest of us are, because he is committing suicide every time he puffs on one of those things.”

3. No Child Left Behind

Chairman of the House Education Committee from 2001 to 2006, Boehner co-authored the No Child Left Behind law with former Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H) and former Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).

The landmark law requires public schools receiving federal funding to administer annual statewide tests. While Boehner and Kennedy were on opposite ends ideologically, they were close personal friends who bonded over running a Catholic scholarship fund together.

Then-President George W. Bush ultimately signed the bill into law in Boehner’s district outside of Cincinnati.

“It would not have happened without his leadership,” Bush said.

4. Boehner’s ouster and political comeback

His may be one of the greatest political comeback stories in modern history. After the GOP lost five House seats in the 1998 midterms, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) resigned and Boehner was ousted as GOP conference chairman, the No. 4 leadership job.

Instead of quitting Congress, Boehner won the gavel of the Education and Workforce Committee, where he pushed for landmark education and pension reforms — and plotted his comeback. He stunned the Washington establishment in 2006, upsetting acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who had taken over after Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) resigned amid a corruption scandal.

House Republicans toiled in the minority for four years, but the Tea Party wave swept them back into power in 2010 — and put Boehner in the Speaker’s office.

The American people “have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is,” Boehner said in his first speech as Speaker. “They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. That includes this gavel, which I accept cheerfully and gratefully, knowing I am but its caretaker.”

5. Elimination of earmarks

Decades before he became Speaker, Boehner made a pledge to his constituents: No pork-barrel spending for Ohio. And when he took over as GOP leader, he successfully pushed for a temporary moratorium on earmarks, then an outright ban in 2010.

Some believed the ban severely limited Boehner’s power and influence as Speaker — he was suddenly without any carrots to dangle in front of members to get them on board major spending bills. And there have been calls from Democrats, and even some Republicans, to bring back the practice.

But Boehner held firm, telling Fox Business in 2014 that Congress won’t return to that “nonsense.”

“As long as I’m here,” he said, “no earmarks.”

6. The elusive “grand bargain”

The epic fight over raising the debt limit in the summer of 2011 was one of the first major tests of Boehner’s Speakership. President Obama and Boehner tried for weeks to strike a major deficit reduction deal, even playing multiple highly publicized rounds of golf to get to know each other and build trust. 

But a “grand bargain” to hike the debt ceiling and reform entitlement spending proved to be too much. It all melted down one late Friday night in July as both leaders held warring, nationally televised press conferences, comparing each other to “dealing with a bowl of Jell-O” (Boehner’s words) and being “left at the altar” (Obama’s words).

In the end, Congress raised the debt limit with a last-minute compromise that created across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. The entire affair resulted in the first-ever downgrade of the nation’s credit rating. 

7. Telling Reid to ‘go f— yourself!’

Days before the nation was set to go over the fiscal cliff, Boehner walked up to Senate Majority Harry Reid in the White House, pointed his finger in his face and famously told the Nevada Democrat to “go f— yourself.” Twice.

Boehner was peeved Reid was making speeches, accusing the Speaker of running a “dictatorship” and being more concerned about keeping his job.

Boehner’s frustration at the situation was palpable. Just a week earlier, Boehner had stood before his GOP conference and recited the Serenity Prayer — “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference” — then said he was throwing in the towel on his “Plan B” to avert the fiscal cliff.

Vice President Biden and then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) managed to rescue the talks and stave off the crisis at the 11th hour. And Boehner and Reid, who’s retiring from the Senate next year, quickly patched things up.  

“His legacy, as far as I’m concerned, is one of absolute honesty,” Reid told reporters Wednesday night. “He never, ever misled me.”

8. The 2013 government shutdown

Boehner has the dubious distinction of presiding over the first government shutdown in 17 years. Republicans, egged on by conservative groups such as Heritage Action, insisted that any government spending bill had to include provisions defunding ObamaCare.

But after a disastrous 16-day shutdown in October 2013, the government ultimately reopened after Congress passed a spending bill that included no significant changes to the healthcare law.

Two months later, after Ryan, then the House Budget Committee chairman, and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), unveiled a budget deal, Boehner derided the same conservative groups for attacking the bipartisan accord.

“I think that they’ve lost all credibility,” Boehner said. The day before the government reopened, he said, “One of these groups stood up and said, ‘Well, we never really thought it would work.’ ”

“Are you kidding me?!” Boehner exclaimed.

9. Hosting Pope Francis

Boehner, a lifelong Catholic and former altar boy, tried inviting three different popes to address Congress over the course of his two-decade career. He finally struck papal gold when Pope Francis accepted the invitation to speak in September. Boehner appeared visibly emotional as he remained by Francis’s side throughout the historic visit.

A day later, Boehner shocked Washington, announcing that he would resign from Congress after months of pressure from conservatives trying to oust him. That Friday, he recalled a private moment with Francis, when the pope put his arm around the Speaker and said gently, “Please pray for me.”

“I was thinking about walking out the door anyway,” Boehner explained. By the following morning after Francis’s visit, he decided, “Today’s the day I’m going to do this.”

10. Boehner’s swan song

During Boehner’s penultimate week in Congress, the House voted to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which he spearheaded while leading the Education Committee. It was a swan song for the outgoing Speaker.

The program, which allows low-income students in the nation’s capital to attend private schools using taxpayer-funded vouchers, has remained close to the Speaker’s heart since its 2003 inception. Boehner has invited D.C. Catholic school students to State of the Union addresses each year and hosted several for Pope Francis’s visit.

“Those of us who work here, who make a good living, we owe something to the kids in this town. We owe the kids in this city a chance — a fighting chance — at success,” Boehner said in a tearful floor speech.

Asked at his final news conference to name the “best day” of his Speakership, Boehner cited last week’s House vote to reauthorize the education program.

The vote “was a pretty big deal,” he said, “and I enjoyed it.”

Tags Barack Obama Budget deal Education Eric Cantor Harry Reid John Boehner No Child Left Behind Paul Ryan Shutdown

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