Washington Reads The Boehner Tea Leaves

House Speaker says he's not retiring in 2014, as departure of two friends reignites speculation

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Speaker of the House John Boehner

When John Boehner became Speaker of the House in 2011, he acknowledged his family and friends, “two of my best buds” in Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Richard Burr, and “my buddy [Rep. Tom] Latham.” All three were standing at the bottom of the dais as Nancy Pelosi handed Boehner the gavel.

But Boehner’s friends seem to be deserting him. Chambliss announced he would not seek a third term in January. Latham on Tuesday said he was also retiring. The only one left is Burr, who was reelected to a second six-year term term in 2010. The retirement of two of Boehner’s closest friends has reignited rumors in Washington that Boehner himself might step down after 2014. Some GOP members have even openly speculated to the press that Boehner is planning on leaving.

Boehner has filed papers to run for reelection again in 2014, and insists the speculation is nothing more than that. “Boehner has been clear — publicly and privately — that he intends to be Speaker again in the next Congress,” spokesman Michael Steel said in an email on Wednesday. But as one former Boehner aide told the Huffington Post in September, “He has to say that. He can’t not say that. The minute you say [you’re leaving], you’re done. … Everybody around him thinks this is his last term.”

Current forecasts have the GOP gaining anywhere from five to 10 seats in next November’s midterm elections, so if Boehner chose to step aside after the elections, he would do so on a high note. That said, his legacy as Speaker would be mixed at best, with a government shutdown and few legislative accomplishments to his name.

Boehner also suffers from the same problem Pelosi did when faced with the prospect of retirement: a weak bench. Pelosi was loathe to hand the reins over to longtime rival Steny Hoyer, the House No. 2 Democrat, according to Democratic sources. And her young protégé Chris Van Hollen hails from the same state as Hoyer — Maryland — complicating any leap- frogging. Boehner and his No. 2, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have had friction in the past. As one one former Boehner staffer once told TIME, if Boehner goes he would take Cantor with him in a “murder-suicide.” And California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the No. 3 House Republican, has only been in the House for seven years, and in leadership less than four years.

Given the number of staff that have worked for both Boehner and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, and Boehner’s frequent praise and promotion of the former vice presidential nominee, many have speculated that Boehner wants to see Ryan succeed him. But Ryan has dismissed such conjecture and on Tuesday announced he would seek the House Ways & Means chairmanship next term. The Wisconsin Republican has long said his goal in life is to steer Congress’ chief tax writing committee.

So, does Boehner have on his wish list from Santa a life of eternal GTL — or golf, tan and lobby, as his staff joking refers to his cartoon image in reference to the Jersey Shore’s gym, tan and laundry? As Boehner himself likes to say: “If and’s and but’s were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas.”