NEW YORK – Rep. John Boehner’s announcement Friday that he is resigning from the House of Representatives, including from the position of speaker of the House, was greeted with mixed emotions on both sides of the Jewish political aisle.
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Boehner, a vocal opponent of the Iran nuclear deal and a vocal proponent of strong U.S.-Israel ties, has served as speaker of the House — the second in line, after the vice president, to succeed the president — for the past five years. In a statement Friday he said that he had planned to step down at the end of 2014. It has been widely reported that he decided to stay in the post after Jewish Republican Eric Cantor lost last year’s primary election and was no longer in line to become speaker.
“I stayed on to provide continuity to the Republican Conference and the House. It is my view, however, that prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable damage to the institution. To that end, I will resign the speakership and my seat in Congress on October 30,” Boehner said on Friday.
Though a conservative Republican, Boehner has recently been under intense political pressure from more-right wing members of his party to step down. Their current squabble is over a provision to de-fund Planned Parenthood which the Republican Party has attached to the bill to continue funding the federal government past September 30th, which is the end of its fiscal year.
The Senate and President Barack Obama have said they will veto a bill that includes the Planned Parenthood provision. So, by passing the bill with the Planned Parenthood clause, the House of Representatives would, in effect, be shutting down the federal government, as it did in 2011 over “Obamacare.”
William Daroff represents the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington and has known Boehner for 30 years, since the speaker was in his first elected office as a township trustee in Ohio and Daroff was a teenage Republican activist in the same state. As a college student a few years later, Daroff worked for Boehner as a page in the Ohio House of Representatives and they have been friendly ever since.
Daroff said in an interview that he was “a little taken aback” by the news of Boehner’s resignation, adding that the speaker's departure will be a loss to Jewish interests in Congress. Boehner has “always had a real keen interest in the Jewish community, and particularly in helping our social service agencies," Daroff said. "He was very engaged after the fall of the Iron Curtain in helping Soviet Jews relocate to Ohio. And he has always been a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
He added that Boehner has spoken frequently to the JFNA leadership and “would always assist when we had trouble with legislative initiatives,” like proposals to reduce the tax deductibility of charitable contributions. “He’s always had an open door approach,” said Daroff.
It was at Boehner’s invitation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress last March, infuriating President Obama and Congressional Democrats and initiating what has been subsequently viewed as a particularly tense chapter in U.S.-Israel relations. Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer kept plans for the speech secret, at Boehner's request.
Shortly after the controversial address and Netanyahu’s re-election, Boehner visited Israel, heading a delegation of Republican members of Congress on a trip in Israel. More recently, he pledged that the House would do “everything possible” to block the Iran nuclear deal, though everything possible wasn’t enough.
In 2010, Boehner was one of 327 House members who sent a letter to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to "reaffirm our commitment to the unbreakable bond that exists between our country and the State of Israel and to express to you our deep concern over recent tension. In every important relationship, there will be occasional misunderstandings and conflict.”
“It’s been a very close relationship. He’s been a great ally of the Coalition and we’re sad to see him go,” said Mark McNulty, spokesperson for the Republican Jewish Coalition. Boehner has frequently spoken with the RJC leadership, he said. “We’re concerned that the next speaker of the House continues his legacy of being supportive of Israel. Right now we’re just focused on leading the pro-Israel fight and making sure we continue to elect pro-Israel candidates.”
On the opposite side of the Congressional aisle, the chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Greg Rosenbaum, greeted the news of Boehner’s resignation with "mixed emotions,” he said in an interview.
“Within his caucus he was trying to be somewhat a voice of moderation, and lead his party away from shutting down the government over a manufactured crisis about Planned Parenthood,” said Rosenbaum. “Using this Planned Parenthood argument as a cover, the Republican fight is really about abortion and a woman’s right to choose.”
American Jews vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in presidential elections and nearly all Jewish Democrats support the legal right to abortion. “Even 75 percent of Jewish Republicans are pro-choice,” Rosenbaum noted. “It’s concerning that Boehner is being silenced on an issue about which there’s near unanimity in the American Jewish community.”
Boehner, who is Catholic, is personally anti-abortion, but he wanted to keep the government running rather than shut it down in an effort to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding. Planned Parenthood, which has about 85 affiliates and 820 clinics across the U.S., provides health care, including breast and cervical cancer screening and HIV testing, as well as contraception. Roughly half its $1 billion annual budget comes from federal sources, largely in the form of Medicaid payments for healthcare services. U.S. government funding cannot be used to pay for abortions, according to federal law.
In August, an anti-abortion group secretly taped Planned Parenthood employees discussing the sale of fetal tissue, obtained during abortions, to people it believed to be researchers. The tissue, which is used for testing, is sold through third-party services, with Planned Parenting receiving small payments of about $100 to cover the cost of processing. The undercover videos caused a national uproar. At the last Republican presidential candidates’ debate, Carly Fiorina erroneously claimed that the images show “a fully-formed fetus, on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says ‘we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’“
While some three million Americans receive health care from Planned Parenthood each year, abortions constitute only 3 percent of its services.
Barbara Goldberg Goldman, a member of NJDC’s executive committee and chair of NJDC’s Women’s Leadership Network, said, “I find it reprehensible that those bent on caucusing with the Tea Party take an issue like women’s healthcare and use it politically.”
Goldberg Goldman, who previously worked as an aide to Rep. Barbara Jordan, currently works as a consultant on affordable housing and runs an employment agency in the Washington, D.C. area.
“They do that constantly with the State of Israel, using it as a political wedge issue,” she said. “It’s very hurtful because Democrats and Republicans are unified in their love for Israel. All of us at NJDC care deeply for Israel’s safety and security. It’s unwavering.”
Even beyond Israel-related concerns, Goldberg Goldman is dismayed by the issues and actions that contributed to Boehner’s decision to resign.
“For a woman, a Jewish woman and a Democratic woman, it is very frustrating to watch what is happening on Capitol Hill,” she said.
Boehner is famous for crying easily. He visibly fought back tears at the press conference Friday at which he announced his resignation. JFNA’s Daroff said that he has always known the Congressman to be emotional, but it wasn’t widely known until he became speaker of the House in 2010.
“He has always been emotional and worn his emotions on his sleeve,” Daroff told Haaretz. “It wasn’t a big deal until he was third in succession to the president and had cameras on him at all times. Some people made light of the fact that he was quick to cry, but it shows that he’s human like the rest of us, and that these issues are more than partisan gamesmanship but that real people and real lives are impacted by actions taken by our elected officials.
“He takes very seriously the Catholic teachings about caring for the less fortunate,” said Daroff. “We saw a lot of that emotion come out as the realities of the political process ran headfirst into the realities of poverty and caring from the poor.”
When it comes to the Jewish state, Boehner “clearly always saw Israel as a beacon of democracy in a troubled region and had a lot of solidarity for the Jewish community and for Israel.”