'All bets off' for policy agenda as embattled Boehner quits

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 25, 2015 - House Speaker John Boehner abruptly relinquished his leadership amid a growing rebellion in his caucus, throwing into doubt the prospects for getting an agreement on highway funding and on policy issues critical to agriculture. 

Boehner's announcement that he will step down next month comes as he was struggling to avoid a government shutdown next week and preparing to negotiate a fiscal 2016 budget agreement that farm groups hope will include provisions to block parts of President Obama's regulatory agenda, including the new Clean Water Act rule. 

“We will have to completely rethink … what we are going to do,” said Alabama Republican Robert Aderholt, chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. “All bets are off.”

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Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., put it more colorfully: “November and December are going to be like Dante's inferno here.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who represents a heavily agricultural district in California's Central Valley, is expected to seek the speakership, but the conservatives who drove Boehner out of office may try to rally around someone who is more of a firebrand.

There is much at stake in the budget negotiations. The White House is demanding that GOP leaders agree to higher spending for domestic programs. Republicans want more defense spending in return as well as a series of policy riders that they inserted into pending appropriations bills. 

Those riders among other things would block the administration from implementing rules setting carbon limits on electric utilities, tightening ozone standards and re-defining what ditches, streams and wetlands are regulated under the Clean Water Act. 

Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted to finish a long-term highway funding bill this fall, but enacting the bill hinges on finding a way to fund it that Republicans can support. 

“Everything right now is very difficult and then when you lose your leader that becomes even more of a challenge,” said Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D. “We've got a big job in front of us and keeping those policies would be absolutely wonderful. We've got to see what we can get agreement on.”

Boehner's problems have been boiling since January. He survived re-election as speaker in January but he and McConnell have been under a relentless assault on talk radio and from GOP presidential candidates who said the leaders weren't doing enough to carry out conservative priorities, the latest issue being the defunding of Planned Parenthood. 

Heritage Action, a leading conservative advocacy group that frequently clashed with the GOP leaders, sent an email to supporters exulting in Boehner's announcement. 

“For too long, Boehner and his congressional leadership team stymied conservatives. Time and again, Boehner worked with President Obama and his allies rather than members of his own caucus. Now Congress can take a more conservative direction," the group said.

One of Boehner's most vocal critics in the House , Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said the new speaker needs to be “someone who can articulate conservative principles. Right now John Boehner has taken up the whole space and done nothing with it.”

Asked if a possible vacuum would jeopardize getting regulatory provisions that agriculture interests have been seeking, Huelskamp said, “That is a problem, but I think we've had a leadership vacuum there for two and a half years of where John Boehner ... said we can't do this or we can't do that. We need a speaker who says ‘Yes, we can.'”

Boehner's immediate challenge is keeping the government open when the fiscal year starts Oct. 1. Boehner and McConnell want to keep the government running through the fall to allow time for the negotiations with the White House, but many conservatives have been demanding that any such continuing resolution include a provision to defund Planned Parenthood, even if that had no chance of passing through the Senate. 

The Senate will vote on a CR Monday that won't include the Planned Parenthood provision, and Boehner announced plans Friday for the House to follow suit. 

As for Boehner's possible successor, Aderholt said he believed McCarthy had the support of a majority of the GOP caucus. But House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said that while McCarthy was the obvious choice, “based on the mood of the conference, it's going to be a pretty spirited contest.” 

Boehner, who arrived at an afternoon news conference singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” told reporters that he didn't decide to step down until Friday morning and didn't tell McCarthy of his plans until two minutes before meeting with the House GOP members to make the announcement. 

“This turmoil that has been churning for a couple of months is not good for the members and it's not good for the institution,” he said. 

Boehner said McCarthy would make an “excellent speaker.”

Boehner is a former member of the House Agriculture Committee and his resignation from Congress will be something of a loss for milk processors. He took their side against the National Milk Producers Federation and ensured that the new Margin Protection Program for dairy farms created by the 2014 farm bill didn't include a supply management program.

Boehner, 65, has been serving as the representative from Ohio's Eighth District since 1991. The second-oldest of 12 brothers and sisters, he has lived in western Ohio his entire life.

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