John Boehner, who stunned the political world on Friday when he announced his shock resignation as speaker of the House of Representatives, on Sunday launched a full-blooded attack on his rightwing Republican colleagues, calling them “false prophets” and accusing them of lying about the possibility for radical change in Washington.
Boehner took to the air on CBS to get his own back on the increasingly belligerent right wing of his party that in effect forced his early resignation. In an interview that was liberally dosed with a Boehner trademark – tear-laden emoting – he said: “The Bible says: ‘Beware of false prophets.’ There are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done.”
He went on: “We have groups here in town, members of the House and Senate, who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things that they know – they know – can never happen.”
He made a further swipe at the radical right when he gave his advice for future Republican members of Congress: “Have the courage to do what you can do – it’s easy to do what you can’t do.”
Boehner made his unconstrained attack on the right of his own party as the spectre of a government shutdown once again loomed over Washington. He assured the American people that during his final 30 days in the speakership – the top post in the House – he would use his remaining muscle to make sure a funding bill went through to avert a second shutdown of the federal government in as many years.
Asked by CBS whether the shutdown would now happen, he said: “No.”
Boehner’s decision to walk away from the speakership was the culmination of an intensifying clash between Republican leaders in Congress and the burgeoning cabal of right-wing conservatives whose ranks have grown since the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014.
Such conservatives wanted Boehner to show more mettle in standing up to President Obama, particularly over their desire to see the women’s health organisation Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions, stripped of federal funding – an issue that brought the possibility of a shutdown to the fore.
Boehner used the last time a shutdown happened, in 2013, as an example of rightwing conservatives acting as “false prophets”.
“The whole idea that we were going to shut down the government to get rid of Obamacare in 2013, this plan never had a chance,” he said, adding that it was a “fool’s errand”.
Asked whether he counted Ted Cruz, the senator for Texas who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, as one of his “false prophets”, the speaker replied: “You could pick a lot of names. I’ll leave you to choose them.”
Having demurred, he then pointedly alluded to a speech at a recent fundraiser in which he had called Cruz a “jackass”.
While his performance will go down in history as one of the most forthright criticisms by a senior Republican of his own colleagues, as television the encounter was also marked by the extent of Boehner’s tears. He began welling up early on when he talked about the support his family had given him in his 25 years as a politician.
When the conversation turned to the pope, whom he invited to address Congress last week, the floodgates opened. The tears came as Boehner described the pope blessing his six-week old grandson Alistair, and they came again when he related how the pope had asked Boehner to pray for him.
“Well, you can imagine, I was a mess,” he said.
He declined to share on camera the flattering words the pope had said about him in their private conversation, saying: “I would repeat them, except it would really cause me to cry.”
Boehner’s unexpected decision to stand down reduces the likelihood of a full-out confrontation between House Republicans and the White House – something extreme conservatives have been gunning for – as the outgoing speaker will use the remainder of his political capital to usher through a compromise. He indicated he would lean on the support of Democratic members of the House to get the funding bill through.
He told CBS he would skirt around the Planned Parenthood issue by creating a special committee to investigate the recent furore over clandestine videos featuring the organisation’s staff appearing to discuss the sale of foetal tissue. That would take the subject out of the funding bill and avoid a presidential veto leading to government shutdown.
But though an immediate crisis is likely to be averted, in the long run nobody is of the delusion that things are going to get easier in Washington. Another big crunch moment that the far-right Republicans will be eyeing gleefully falls on 11 December, when Obama and Congress will have to work together to pass a spending bill to raise the country’s borrowing limit – or risk a national default.
Newt Gingrich, a former Republican speaker who was himself forced out by the right of the party in 1999, predicted that Boehner’s successor would face huge challenges. Speaking on ABC, Gingrich linked the rising confidence of the Republican right wing to the surge of outsider contenders for the party’s presidential nomination.
“This isn’t a moment that Boehner can manage. This is a different world with different requirements,” Gingrich said.
His point was underlined by Carson, a retired neurosurgeon with no experience of public office who has shot up to level-pegging status with Trump. In the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, Trump is on 21% of support among Republican primary voters and Carson is on 20%.
Carson told ABC that in his view it was time for new leadership of the party in the House.
“There is a lot of unrest,” he said. “People feel that a lot of people have been sent to Congress over the last few years, but nothing has changed. It’s time for results.”
Carson also said Boehner had served his country well for many years, and “I don’t see any reason to denigrate him”.
“But it’s time to move on,” he said.