Politics & Government

Mitch McConnell, Joe Craft and Kelly Knight heap praise on John Boehner after retirement announcement

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell heaped praise Friday morning on U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner after Boehner announced that he will retire from his leadership position and his congressional seat.

Two of Boehner's biggest backers and fundraisers — coal magnate Joe Craft and his fiancée, Kelly Knight of Lexington — also lauded Boehner, saying he "shouldered the burden of leadership and put the team on his back through some tough times for our country."

Boehner said he will retire at the end of October.

Craft and Knight, along with Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, were at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday as Boehner's guests to hear the first-ever address to a joint session of Congress by a pope. Boehner had previously attended a UK basketball game as a guest of the couple.

Speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate, McConnell said Boehner exemplified "grace under pressure," and he thanked Boehner for his public service.

McConnell is one of the few Republican officials who can empathize with Boehner, who struggled to unite a party fractured by infighting and sharp disagreements over legislative tactics.

[Related: McConnell likely to face increased pressure from conservatives in wake of Boehner's exit]

The Kentucky senator said Boehner "was able to transform a broken and dispirited Republican minority into the largest Republican majority since the 1920s."

"That's a legacy few can match," McConnell said.

McConnell, who became Senate majority leader in January, spent the summer facing criticism from Tea Party conservatives that was similar to what Boehner endured throughout his speakership.

McConnell defended Boehner's time as speaker, saying "he flew across the country more times than he can count to support members of his conference, and to recruit new members to the cause."

"As leader of a new majority, he turned the tide in Congress and brought conservative reform in many areas," McConnell said. "He worked tirelessly to provide hope to those who dreamed of a better life and to middle-class families who struggled under the weight of this administration."

In a statement provided by Knight to the Herald-Leader, she and Craft said that "our friend, John Boehner, entered public service because he felt called to lead."

"He answered that call and gave a quarter-century of his life to it," the Lexington power couple said. "The son of a bartender and one of 12 siblings, he cherished the opportunity to serve the people of Ohio's Eighth District, and ultimately the nation as speaker of the House."

Despite his struggles to contain party infighting, Craft and Knight said, Boehner "will hand over the gavel of the speakership the way he accepted it: with humility, gratitude, and a love of God and country."

"He will leave public service in the autumn of a year that brought not only significant legislative feats, but has seen him become a grandfather and (seen) a pope address a joint meeting of Congress for the first time in history," the statement read. "When he leaves the Capitol, he'll be remembered the only way he's ever wanted to be remembered: as a regular guy who had a very big job."