Speaker John Boehner wants out. He really does.
But the Ohio House Republican is staying put, for now — and that could improve the chances for a debt limit increase by early next month to avoid a market-shattering government default. His continued presence also might help lawmakers reach a bipartisan budget deal to head off a government shutdown in December.
The tea party forces that pushed Boehner to plan his exit after nearly five years in the top job now have less leverage against a man with nothing to lose.
What are they going to do now, threaten to force a vote to immediately oust Boehner?
"Sometimes the dog catches the car and doesn't know what to do," Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, a Boehner ally, said of the House Freedom Caucus and other hard-right lawmakers.
Boehner insists he wants to leave as scheduled at the end of October, but if Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., won't agree to replace him, it may take a while for a consensus to form around an alternative.
"While we go through this process, we've got to continue to address the people's priorities. This institution cannot grind to a halt," Boehner told Republicans Friday morning in a closed-door session. "It is my hope — and indeed it is my plan — for this House to elect a new speaker before the end of October. But at the end of the day, that's really up to the people in this room."
Excerpts of Boehner's remarks came from an official who was in the room. Not authorized to disclose them publicly, the official requested anonymity.
Facing a fall of fiscal fights with the Obama administration, Boehner has said he doesn't want to leave a "dirty barn" for his successor. The toughest item, by far, is legislation that must pass by early November or so to increase the government's borrowing cap so it won't default on its bills. Last year, Boehner orchestrated a debt ceiling increase by relying on just 28 Republicans and 193 Democrats — the exact opposite of the way the House is usually run.
Then there are ongoing talks about easing spending curbs that have frozen the budgets of both the Pentagon and domestic agencies.
"John is going to try to clean the barn up as best he can," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. "He's not going to clean the whole thing, but we can probably dispose of the debt ceiling. I hope we can reach a budget agreement."
Boehner's penchant for relying on Democrats to make up for tea party defections on legislation like a 2013 tax increase and last month's temporary government funding bill got him in trouble with the right. There's little they can do if he follows the same strategy on the debt limit and a budget deal.
"It is ironic how smart John Boehner's looking," said Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. "Frankly, all this talk of a fresh new face sounds very sweet on the surface, but we're not electing a student council president. His stock rises with the prospects of an alternative and the steadiness of his hand, the clarity of his positions — whether you like them or not — and the fact he's not prone to panic. It's all looking really good right about now."
Conservatives suffered a setback on Friday when emboldened GOP moderates orchestrated a rarely successful petition drive to force legislation reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank onto the floor agenda later this month. The roster of more than three dozen GOP signatories included many Boehner loyalists.
The 13-term lawmaker not only supports reviving the bank, which helps overseas sales of U.S. goods, he called an additional minutes-long House session on Monday that, under the arcane rules governing such petition efforts, sped up the House vote on the measure to the end of October rather than into November.
His office says that wasn't the motivation for the unexpected pro forma session.
A Boehner aide noted that the speaker has said he won't change his way of approaching this fall's treacherous set of issues. For instance, Boehner marched ahead last month with legislation to temporarily fund the government and rejected tea party calls to "defund" Planned Parenthood at the risk of a government shutdown.
Typically on tough votes it often looks like many GOP lawmakers cast "no" votes — to insulate themselves against criticism from conservative talk radio and Washington-based outside groups — while secretly rooting for the legislation to pass.
The crowd that votes "no" but roots for bills to pass, however, appreciates it when Boehner turns to Democrats to extricate them from a tough spot.
"That's what we're dealing with: Hope yes, vote no," said Dent. "Same thing will happen on the debt ceiling, same thing will happen on a budget agreement."
Boehner's political maturity is a commodity that's sometimes in short supply in the House, making some Republicans wistful.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said the speaker's election should be postponed until next year, with Boehner remaining as speaker in the meantime.
"I hope he can stay — if he's willing to forgo some of his golf games and time with his grandbaby," she said, adding that she thinks Boehner would agree to serve into next year.