Could There Be a Coup Against Boehner?

Billy House
National Journal

If any Republicans are plotting to overthrow John Boehner as House speaker, they aren’t making a lot of noise about it. Then again, successful coup d'etats are organized with whispers, not widely telegraphed, and typically denied right up until they are launched.

“No, I’m not,” Boehner said on Friday, when asked at a news conference if he was concerned about losing his post, as his No. 2 in command, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., stood by his side.

Still, the refusal on Thursday night of at least 35 of Boehner’s fellow Republicans to join in supporting his fiscal-cliff “Plan B” to avert income-tax rates from rising at year’s end on most Americans, forcing him to embarrassingly pull his own legislation from floor consideration, is being taken by some outside groups as added evidence of a speakership in dire trouble — or, even that Boehner should step down now.

Some conservative anti-Boehner forces outside of Congress are even floating names of members they’d like to see replace him. Those include GOP Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio — identified by colleagues as a ringleader of the conservative hold-outs on Thursday — Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Tom Price of Georgia, and Cantor. Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., fresh off of his losing vice presidential bid, was also being mentioned.

None of those lawmakers, predictably, are saying they will challenge Boehner. But under the House rules for electing a speaker, that’s not necessarily how they would go about leading such a revolt anyway.

There are even some murmurs within the House Republican Conference about what might happen when the House holds its next speaker election on Jan. 3 to open up the new 113th Congress.

This talk is not solely the result of Thursday night’s events, of course. That setback for Boehner represented only the latest in a string of episodes over two years as speaker in which he has been unable to bring the rowdiest and most conservative of his own rank-and-file members in line.

It has been a chronic and perhaps tiring circumstance for many even in his party. But it is one that is now magnified by the pressures of a need to find common ground with President Obama and Democrats to avert the looming expiration of Bush-era tax cuts and deep spending cuts set to kick in with the new year.

A successful strategy to oust Boehner would not require a challenger to pick up the support of a majority of GOP members. Rather, it would take less than half of the number of Thursday night’s 35 or more holdouts to block Boehner from keeping the speaker’s gavel.

That's because under House rules, a speaker must be elected with an “absolute majority” of all the House member votes cast, Republican and Democrat. That means the winner — who is not required to even be a member of Congress — must take at least 50 percent, plus one vote. 

For instance, if all 233 Republicans and 200 Democrats who will start out in the 113th Congress actually show up to vote for speaker, just 17 Republican defections from Boehner to anyone else could jeopardize his reelection by denying him the 217-vote absolute majority. And if no candidate receives the requisite majority, the roll call is repeated until a speaker is elected.

An example of a worst-case scenario occurred at the start of the 34th Congress in 1855, when no candidate for speaker could secure a majority for 133 ballots. For Boehner, though, even just being forced to a second ballot might be embarrassing enough as a de facto “no confidence” vote that he would decide to step aside for another House Republican name to be considered.

Such maneuvering would not amount to Republicans handing the speaker’s gavel to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California as the alternative, because she would not have enough votes, either. It would be purely about preventing Boehner from getting the required 217 votes.

Such a conspiracy, however, would require two key ingredients.

One is finding 17 House Republicans, or more, willing to publicly vote for someone other than Boehner on an initial ballot and even later ones, and staying unified in that effort —all the while knowing that retribution from Boehner will likely await them if they fail.

Then, if Boehner does eventually give up, an alternative candidate from among House Republicans must be able to rally an absolute majority of votes. There are rumors, which could not be substantiated in interviews with several House Republicans, of colleagues quietly trying to line up support for themselves as speaker if Boehner runs into trouble.

But one self-described conservative said he is aware of efforts to organize some show of dissatisfaction with Boehner during the speaker election on Jan. 3. This same member said that if Boehner were to not be elected on the first ballot, it would be tantamount to a "no-confidence vote.” He said that would likely lead to some energetic closed-door conferences to iron out differences, “or to even pick a new leader.”

That lawmaker said that under such a scenario, he does not believe that either Cantor or the No. 3 House Republican, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, would be selected as a new nominee, in part because of the gushing lock-step unity they’ve been emphasizing with Boehner as a leadership “team.”

In fact, aides to Cantor, who in the past has had an uneasy history with Boehner, have been determined over the past year to snuff out any suggestion of ongoing tension between the two, responding angrily when the idea of a Cantor challenge to Boehner was brought up.

Meanwhile, Price was reported by National Review as someone who might be thinking of putting his name into consideration as an option to Boehner if fiscal-cliff talks are seen by House conservatives as having gone sour. Some had noted that because Price has been mentioned as a potential 2014 primary challenger to Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., even a quixotic challenge to Boehner's speakership might score him points with conservatives, despite the cost of such a move in terms of potential retribution from Boehner.

But after a morning of such speculation on Dec. 9, a Price spokesman denied the congressman was running for speaker. “He is focused on real solutions to get America back on track. Those solutions reside in fundamental principles that embrace individual opportunity and economic freedom,” said the spokesman, Ryan Murphy. Nine days later, Price was named vice chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Hensarling is a darling of House conservatives. But his office on Friday responded to suggestions he might be interested in running for speaker with a statement that, “The only leadership position Congressman Hensarling plans to hold in the 113th Congress is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.”

Jordan, the outgoing chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 160 House conservatives, is a member who helped lead the charge against Boehner’s Plan B. His office had no comment on speculation he could emerge as a speaker hopeful.

Even before Boehner’s decision to pull his Plan B off the floor on Thursday night, the conservative group American Majority Action had this month launched a campaign to dump Boehner as speaker, seeking to convince House Republicans to vote for someone else on Jan. 3. The Virginia-based group is among those angered by what it sees as Boehner’s softening on tax increases as part of a fiscal-cliff deal. The organization is also upset by Boehner’s recent removal of some conservatives from committee posts.

But after Thursday night’s events, the group said in a statement, Boehner’s leadership has been “discredited,” adding, “Our country’s economy deserves better than to be held hostage by Speaker Boehner’s last cling to power.”

“He (Boehner) should save the Republican Party the embarrassment of a public leadership battle and resign,” added Ron Meyer, a spokesman for the group.

But Boehner is projecting a less-than-worried outlook.

“Listen, you’ve all heard me say this, and I’ve told my colleagues this: If you do the right things every day for the right reasons, the right things will happen,” Boehner said at his Friday news conference.

“And while we may have not been able to get the votes last night to avert 99.81 percent of the tax increases I don’t think … they weren’t taking that out on me. They were dealing with the perception that someone might accuse them of raising taxes,” Boehner said.