WASHINGTON -- Former aides to John Boehner and other high-level GOP operatives are increasingly convinced that the House speaker will step aside after the 2014 midterm elections, according to interviews with a dozen Republican sources.
All summer, rumors have been swirling around the Hill and K Street that the speaker has had enough and that 2014 would be his last year with the gavel. Then the message went out in July: Boehner (R-Ohio) is not leaving.
Boehner told his inner circle at dinner that there was no truth to the talk, and authorized his people to spread the word around town. A story appeared in Politico the next day, reaffirming Boehner's stated commitment to stay past 2014.
"These inside-the-Beltway parlor games take place every two years. The speaker has made clear publicly he intends to remain in his position in the next Congress," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told HuffPost.
But not everyone close to the 63-year-old speaker is so sure. "He has to say that. He can't not say that. The minute you say [you're leaving], you're done," said one former GOP leadership aide who is part of Boehner's circle. "Everybody around him thinks this is his last term."
Despite the effort by Boehner to tamp down speculation that he will depart the House after the 2014 midterms, multiple cooks in Boehner's kitchen cabinet think the Republican is still strongly considering making his exit just over a year from now.
"I'd be surprised if he did [stay]," said one former senior aide to Boehner, who, like many consulted for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their relationships. (HuffPost spoke to four top former Boehner aides, two current aides, five former leadership aides close to Boehner's inner circle, and a GOP operative on familiar terms with his circle.)
Boehner has plenty of reasons to make this coming year his last, but one may be more compelling than the others: It's not at all clear he could win. His deputy, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), is not expected to challenge him, but during the last election a bloc of insurgent tea partyers threatened to derail Boehner's election by depriving him of the 218 votes he needs to hold the gavel. The insurgents pulled back a bit, and Boehner won the speakership with 220 votes. "He barely won the last one and that group of opposition has only grown," said one former leadership aide. "The ones who were in on it and got cold feet basically gave him a reprieve. They won't be willing to do that again."
Only three more tea partyers would need to join the effort to block his next reelection -- hardly a difficult feat, given the challenges Boehner presently faces: a vote on military action in Syria, immigration reform, a government shutdown and a debt ceiling standoff, all in the context of a full-scale effort to stop the implementation of Obamacare, which Boehner is entirely powerless to do.
"It's probably not up to him," said one GOP operative. "The natural assumption is that he leaves. It's the overwhelming, working assumption as people are making strategy going into 2015 and 2016."
Given the difficulty of retaining the gavel, plus the scant prospect for a so-called grand bargain later in the midst of a presidential election year, stepping down after the midterms would allow Boehner to leave on his own terms.
Boehner's intention to step down after this cycle or the next changes what has been the conventional wisdom since 2010, namely, that Boehner is doing all he can to stay atop the wild tiger that is his tea party caucus. But if Boehner is looking for his exit, that reduces the power that his conference has over him to some degree.
The assumption that Boehner's departure is imminent has set off a round of jockeying for the positions that would open up. The current power structure includes an ad hoc leadership-in-waiting, consisting of five conservatives who serve as a go-betweens for the leadership and the tea party. Getting the blessing of that group is usually the first step toward getting broader tea party buy-in. According to GOP sources, this group includes Reps. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), Jim Jordan (Ohio), Paul Ryan (Wis.), Tom Price (Ga.) and Steve Scalise (La.). All but Ryan have chaired the Republican Study Committee, the bloc of arch-conservatives in the House. Much of the speculation has focused on Hensarling, chairman of the Financial Services Committee, who is considered a viable candidate for either speaker or majority leader. Price, who lost a leadership race last round to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), is considered a viable challenger to current Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).
While some in Boehner's circle said he'd like to stay to build his legacy, none expect him to remain past 2016. But sources also universally agreed that the one thing that would keep him in place through 2016, if he could somehow manage to win, is the possibility of locking in a grand bargain that cuts entitlement programs and spending generally.
The approaching fights over a continuing resolution to fund the government and over raising the debt ceiling both offer some chance at pushing for broad agreements on reforming entitlements. Boehner on Tuesday penned a USA Today op-ed calling for Obama to agree to spending reductions in exchange for a debt ceiling increase. But optimism for such a deal is scarce.
"I personally think he'd like to try for a grand bargain this fall. If he doesn't get anything to leave a legacy, I could see him trying to stick around," another former Boehner aide said.
As evidence of Boehner's resolve to stay, his staff touted the speaker's fundraising totals on behalf of House Republicans, coming to more than $30 million through June, with more in July and August.
"He hasn't slowed down one bit. For example, he has spent the ENTIRE August recess on the road doing events for his colleagues," a source close to Boehner wrote by email on Tuesday. "He flew in today for [a] meeting at the White House and then immediately went back on the road."
But citing fundraising activity as proof positive poses a duck-and-egg problem: If Boehner did relax and stop fundraising, it would be immediately clear he was a lame duck and his power would vanish as quickly. Only by appearing to stick around does he retain his influence.
Nonetheless, Boehner's preference, according to sources, would be to leave if he could. But they also suggested that Boehner is wary of leaving negotiations with the Obama White House over spending and debt to others in the House GOP, and is also concerned about the prospect of total civil war within the Republican House conference if he is not around to smooth ruffled feathers and restore order.
He may not want to stay, but Boehner may have no choice. And in the end that might not bother him all that much. "He has a pretty healthy perspective on life," said one GOP operative. "He likes to golf, he likes to travel. You have limited time left once you get close to 70."
One former leadership aide put the speaker's alternative succinctly: "Join Augusta and go live the good life."