WASHINGTON — The news of House Speaker John Boehner’s resignation brought hundreds of religious conservatives to their feet to cheer — and one after another, much of the Republican Party’s presidential class joined in their rejoicing.
Emboldened conservative tea party leaders across the nation celebrated, too, on a remarkable day for a Republican starkly divided between its ardent ideologues and its pragmatic establishment. With less than five months before Iowa’s presidential caucuses, Boehner’s downfall served as a victory for its conservative wing and a rallying cry for those who seek to ride its frustrations to the White House.
“If we are splintered, a moderate establishment candidate runs up the middle with 23 percent of the vote, steals the nomination and then loses to (Democratic presidential front-runner) Hillary Clinton in the general election,” said presidential candidate and Sen. Ted Cruz. “We have a simple task before us. If conservatives unite, we win.”
The Republican establishment repeatedly beat back conservative challenges in the 2014 midterm elections, helping to give their party control of both chambers of Congress. Conservatives have been deeply frustrated ever since, particularly as President Barack Obama enjoyed victories over congressional Republicans on health care, the Iran nuclear agreement and efforts to block federal funding to Planned Parenthood.
“John Boehner’s decision to resign … is a victory for the millions of grassroots conservatives who worked tirelessly to elect conservatives to control the Congress,” said Jenny Beth Martin, president of the Tea Party Patriots.
Cruz, among his party’s leading agitators on Capitol Hill, said the political establishment in Washington “wants conservatives splintered.” He led the celebration of Boehner’s departure at the Value Voters forum by lashing out at congressional Republicans for not fighting hard enough for conservative priorities.
Billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, who has ridden a wave of frustration with politics and anyone with ties to government to front-runner status in the party’s presidential contest, called Republican congressional leaders like Boehner “babies.”
“We are so disappointed with the Republican establishment,” Trump said. The billionaire suggested that while some people may like Boehner personally, “we want people who are going to get it done.”
No issue has frustrated conservatives more than federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the non-profit women’s health-care provider that also offers abortions. They’ve insisted that cutting off that funding via a must-pass government-wide funding bill is the way to force the issue with Obama.
A move to strip taxpayer funding to the organization was blocked in the Senate on Thursday. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, another 2016 presidential contender, railed against Republicans in Congress who backed down, even when given the opportunity to focus American’s attention on “the horror of abortion.”
“They think they can’t win the battle,” Santorum said, “so they give up before it’s even fought.”
At roughly the same time that Santorum and others were toasting Boehner’s resignation, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus praised him as “a tireless advocate for conservative principles.” In a written statement issued by his office, Priebus said, “our party owes him a great debt.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, among the few White House hopefuls to skip the Value Voters forum, tweeted that the outgoing speaker “dedicated his life to public service.” But the understated praise from Priebus and Bush was lost amid the excitement at Boehner’s resignation at the Value Voters forum.
“It’s time to get some new leadership in Congress. They really haven’t stayed true to conservative values,” said Pam Anderson, a marina manager who traveled to the conference from Panama City, Florida.
She offered a message directly to Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader: “If he wants to do what’s right for this country, he’ll step down, too.
(STEVE PEOPLES and JILL COLVIN)