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Rep. John Shimkus

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., talks with Post-Dispatch reporter Jacob Barker at the Post-Dispatch offices on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. Photo by Lynden Steele, lsteele@post-dispatch.com

WASHINGTON • Rep. Ann Wagner got a close-up view of the hints John Boehner was giving about his impending resignation in the hours before, during and after Pope Francis’s historic speech to Congress Thursday.

Wagner, R-Ballwin, who said she may try to move up in House Republican leadership in the wake of Boehner’s resignation, attended a private gathering with the pope shortly after the speech. Pope Francis blessed Boehner’s six-week old grandson, and the emotion that the speaker showed in that moment and over the two days of the pontiff’s visit here helped Wagner make sense of the shocking decision Boehner would announce to the world less than 24 hours later.

“The speaker was beyond moved,” said Wagner, a self-described “cradle Catholic” who lost her mother less than two weeks ago. Since then, she said, she has dealt with an “overwhelming” emotional journey, from mourning her mother’s death to the pope’s “message of love, compassion, tolerance, family,” to the resignation of her colleague.

Over the years, Boehner had invited three popes to speak to Congress, Wagner said. It seemed that Francis’s acceptance, and the emotions that it evoked in a speaker under siege, was essentially a divine political message for the devout Catholic Boehner.

His willingness to cut deals with President Barack Obama, sometimes practicing the government the pope preached, had created heavy opposition in his own caucus.

“He is an unselfish man who had reached that pinnacle and believes it was time to go,” Wagner said.

When Boehner made his shocking announcement in a closed-door meeting with Republicans Friday morning, Wagner said, “there were 6-foot-6, burly men in tears.”

But the emotion would soon surrender to intrigue. By the time she landed in St. Louis six hours later, Wagner had 52 emails, 18 text messages and four phone messages from colleagues, probing for her thoughts and what leadership position, if any, the current senior deputy whip, might seek to move up to on the GOP’s 12-person leadership team.

Wagner said she will not think about that for a few days. But she made it clear that she is interested in moving up, although she ruled out trying to replace Boehner herself.

“I can’t imagine speakership,” she told the Post-Dispatch Friday, “but I am never one to shy away for either a leadership opportunity or for a greater opportunity to serve. We are going to visit about that in the coming days.”

In an emotional news conference, Boehner said Friday he was resigning to avoid “irreparable harm” from ongoing conservative challenges to his speakership in his own caucus, as Congress confronts a potential government shutdown next week.

Besieged by his own right wing for not fighting harder for Republican positions, ridiculed on the Internet and TV for crying in public and facing contentious, looming showdowns on Planned Parenthood funding and a possible government shutdown, Boehner surprised almost everyone in a town where slow leaks and a perpetual state of speculation usually take the punch out of anything unforeseen.

But in retrospect, the weariness and emotion he exuded in recent months — Boehner wears his inner self on his face more than most politicians — found a powerful balm in the pope’s speech to Congress.

“It is a lonely place to be in this kind of leadership,” Wagner said. “We had our disagreements but he always, always, he was one of the few in Washington who has always spoken the truth, the truth, to me.

“I think he could have sustained” challenges to his leadership, Wagner said, “but he was not going to do that. Not to his colleagues, not to this institution, not to his family. He is an unselfish man who believes he had reached that pinnacle and (that) it was time to go.”

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, Ill., said Boehner “did what he always has done — he put our country before himself.”

“I’m just shocked. People, I think, have conflicting emotions, even those who were the alligators,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, a long-time Boehner ally, and for whom Boehner first campaigned nearly a quarter century ago.

“You put it in the context of the Christian faith, and you know we can’t match that, but this was an act of sacrificial love,” Shimkus said. “I can’t explain it any other way: that he is leaving a position of power, second in line to the president, for the good of the institution, for the good of the nation, and for the good of the Republican conference (in the House).

“I just shake my head,” Shimkus added. “You don’t see this from politicians very much, right?”

Boehner announced he would leave a day after the pope, in his speech to Congress, had summoned the Biblical Moses to describe the charge to Congress: “You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”

Shimkus said he believed that pivoting back to the hardball politics of leadership came as a stark moment of contrast for his friend.

“This was a huge deal to him, it was like a mountaintop experience,” Shimkus said of the pope’s visit. “I am not inside the speaker’s head, but (after the pope) he now still has to govern. Coming down the mountain, he wasn’t climbing down. It was almost like falling off a cliff, you know?”

The opposition to Boehner “now is really removed, so we can move forward to address these issues” without the “palace intrigue” of whether or not Boehner can survive, Shimkus said, referring to spending decisions overlaid with an emotional fight over Planned Parenthood.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said he believes that, in the short term, Boehner’s resignation will alleviate some of the pressure leading to a shutdown showdown. But Clay said Democrats are worried about who will replace Boehner.

“For me, this is rather bittersweet, because I had a lot of respect for Speaker Boehner,” Clay said. “We didn’t agree on much but I found him to be a decent human being who loved his country and the U.S. House of Representatives.

“And then it takes us to the next phase of this, which is what comes after him?” Clay said. “If the people on the extremes come forward and become the leadership of the House there is no room for compromise, there is no room for governing in this country. That will take us to a place we don’t want to have in this country.”

The name of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California immediately came up, and Boehner said he would be a good choice. But Shimkus said he expects others yet unknown to surface in the five weeks before Boehner leaves Congress. Wagner would not speculate on possible replacements or whom she might support.

“Today is not a day, I think, for anybody to be celebrating his stepping down, or politicizing it, capitalizing on it, or trying to maneuver,” she said. “There will be time for that. Now is not the time.”

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.