The surprise resignation announcement Friday of Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio reduces the likelihood of a government shutdown next week over the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood. But it increases the odds of intractable partisan battles over healthcare policy leading up to the 2016 elections.
His resignation, effective at the end of October, means that he now has the political freedom to join with House Democrats to pass a short-term funding measure to keep the government operating. That undoubtedly will infuriate the nearly four dozen House Republicans who are part of the Tea Party caucus, who are demanding a showdown with President Barack Obama and the Democrats over blocking federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
After Boehner steps down, however, all bets are off. Current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California is a likely candidate to replace him. Conservatives have mixed views of McCarthy, who has been a loyal Boehner lieutenant. Their preferred candidate, House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), said he would not seek the speaker's position.
The New York Times reported that at a conservative forum Friday morning in Washington, many attendees cheered when GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida announced that Boehner was resigning. “It's time to turn the page,” Rubio said.
But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Boehner's resignation is bad news for the Republican Party and for GOP election prospects next year. “It means that it's in disarray,” McCain told the Times. “Basically, he's been unseated…. We've got to unite and recognize who the adversary is.”
Moderate Republican House member Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania expressed a similar lament. “There are anywhere from two to four dozen members who don't have an affirmative sense of governance,” he told the Times. While Boehner was a conservative, he also was a pragmatist and often held his party's most conservative House wing in check in their crusade to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He knew Republicans did not have the votes to override a presidential veto. He tried to push his colleagues to take a longer view and better position the party to win the presidency and keep control of Congress in the 2016 elections.
Boehner's successor will continue to face pressure from hard-line conservative House members to repeal the ACA. But that may dim the odds of passing measures that would roll back or revise parts of the healthcare reform law that many Democrats don't like either, such as the tax on high-value employer health plans, the medical device tax and the expansion of small-group insurance rules to larger employer plans. Such proposals seem to be gaining political traction, with the Cadillac tax repeal even getting sympathy from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
But without Boehner's leadership, hard-right Republicans may go off the reservation and push for outright repeal of the ACA, which almost certainly would prompt Democrats to abandon bipartisan efforts to modify the law. That would dismay healthcare, business and labor groups that have become more hopeful about winning legislative relief.
Beyond that, it remains to be seen if the millions of American voters who have benefited from the ACA's coverage expansions and insurance reforms will be attracted to a year of unrestrained GOP attacks on the law between the time Boehner leaves office and Election Day.