From Edge of Fiscal Cliff, House Speaker John Boehner Headed to Reelection

Billy House
National Journal

Successful rebellions require leaders. That’s why the recent talk about some House conservatives conniving to wrest the speaker’s gavel from John Boehner now appears headed nowhere—and why even Boehner’s detractors say that he will be reelected when the new Congress convenes on Thursday.

“You can’t beat somebody with nobody,” one senior House Republican said on Tuesday, referring to what has turned out to be skittishness on the part of any viable alternative candidate to step forward, from the shadows or anywhere else.

Even conservative anti-Boehner forces outside of Congress who have been pushing to get House members to pick someone else are conceding that won’t happen. They predict the Ohio Republican will win his second term as speaker on Thursday, in a vote set for shortly after noon, on the heels of this week’s fiscal-cliff drama.

Whether that is viewed by fellow House members and the public as a good or bad thing, critics note that Boehner will continue to symbolize the Republican brand as their party’s top elected official in Washington—and also as President Obama’s main political foil.

“I hesitate to say it, but this goes to some degree to cowardice.… It turns out no one else seems willing to pick up the mantle,” Ron Meyer, a spokesman for the conservative group American Majority Action, one of the groups that has been pushing for Boehner’s ouster, said on Tuesday.

Under normal circumstances, Boehner’s reelection as speaker on Thursday should be automatic.

But just two weeks ago, the refusal of dozens of Boehner’s fellow Republicans to support his fiscal-cliff “Plan B” to avert income tax rates from rising on most Americans seemed to underscore a speakership in trouble. That setback for Boehner represented just the latest incident in which he has clashed with conservatives in his own conference and right-leaning outside groups, many of whom have regarded him as too willing to compromise with the White House and Democrats on taxes and other fiscal issues.

Boehner was even prompted last month to strip four Republicans from their coveted committee seats, creating more internal tension. Outside of Congress, a Rasmussen poll in late December showed Boehner’s approval numbers at their lowest since becoming speaker in 2011, replacing Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as the least-liked member of congressional leadership among all voters surveyed—with only 55 percent of Republicans approving of his performance.

And on Wednesday, Meyers’s Virginia-based American Majority Action and other conservative groups were revving up new criticism of Boehner, for his decision Tuesday night to support and vote for the fiscal-cliff deal they demean as being “cut” by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The speaker was among just 85 House Republicans ultimately voting for that measure. By contrast, the No. 2 and No. 3 House Republicans—Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.—both voted against it, two of 151 House Republicans to do so.

Also on Wednesday, the Drudge Report was running an unscientific poll asking readers, “John Boehner for speaker of the House? Yea or Nay.” As of noon, more than 85 percent of the more than 155,000 participants had answered “nay.” And Boehner was facing a groundswell of new criticism from some Northeast House Republicans over a decision to not allow a vote on a Hurricane Sandy relief bill.

Declaring time for new leadership at the top of the House Republican Conference, American Majority Action and other groups have been urging the more than 100 House conservatives to consider blocking Boehner’s reelection. They could do so by taking advantage of a rule requiring a speaker to be elected with an “absolute majority” of House member votes. That rule means just 17 Republicans voting for anyone other than Boehner could block him from getting the required 50 percent plus one. That’s because 233 Republicans and 200 Democrats (there will be two vacancies) will comprise the makeup of the House when the 113th Congress officially opens with its swearing-in of members on Thursday—and then moves to a vote for speaker.

Until any candidate receives the requisite majority of votes actually cast for someone (voting “present” does not count as a vote), the roll call is repeated until a speaker is elected. Such an anti-Boehner strategy would not be about handing the speaker’s gavel over to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. It would be about blocking Boehner from keeping the gavel—and doing so long enough, through enough ballots, so that he is embarrassed or becomes seen as too diminished to qualify as speaker.

But the problem for the anti-Boehner “forces,” says Meyer and House members, is that despite what has been chronic conservative disappointment over some of his activities, there has not emerged in the last two weeks any unified effort among even as few as 17 disgruntled House Republicans to carry out a maneuver to block him.

Meyer suggests that only about 12 Republicans are actually willing to move against Boehner, and even that small number is likely to drop without any chance of success. He and others suggest a few reasons why—including fear of reprisals for any coup d'etat that fails, and Boehner’s deft awarding of committee posts to soften some of his opposition in recent weeks.

But more than anything, Meyers and others say that that no on has expressed a willingness—either through a nod, wink, or more open encouragement—to actually have his name put forth as an alternative to Boehner.

Of course, there have been several names thrown out that Boehner's detractors would like to see become speaker. One of the intriguing is Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., the darling of some conservatives, who was defeated for reelection in November (the Constitution does not require the speaker to be a member of the House). But West himself on Tuesday laughed off such talk, saying he has no intention of letting his name being placed in contention.

Other names floated include GOP Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Tom Price of Georgia, and Cantor. Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., fresh off his losing vice presidential bid, also has been mentioned.

In fact, most House conservatives interviewed this week said that they have not been contacted by any colleagues trying to organize an oust-Boehner strategy.

In addition, all of those interviewed said they knew nothing personally of a strategy by some to push changing the speaker’s vote to a secret ballot so that Boehner dissidents could avoid retribution. A memo laying out such a strategy, purportedly written by unidentified House staffers, has been reported by But several lawmakers noted that, even if it were being seriously considered, such a plan would require an almost self-defeating initial public vote by members to change the process to a secret ballot.

There is at least one lawmaker, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who this week acknowledged that he has been receiving “inquiries” about what he intends to do. It was Gohmert who nominated former Speaker Newt Gingrich for speaker in November when House Republicans formally picked Boehner behind closed doors to be their candidate.

Gingrich's nomination did not receive a second in that closed-door process, during which Boehner was picked by acclamation.

“I will keep an open mind,” Gohmert said about Thursday’s vote, including whether he intends to nominate somebody other than Boehner again. “I’m weighing my options.” But others say they expect little impact on Boehner’s reelection, regardless.

“He’s been beaten up a little,” Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., a conservative, said of Boehner. “But I sense no collective contention against him.”

And Boehner appears this week to be helping that feeling along.

On Tuesday, as House Republicans were still pressing concerns about the Senate-passed fiscal-cliff bill prior to the chamber’s late-night vote on the measure, even some of Boehner’s former targets found themselves praising how Boehner was handling the developments.

“I think the speaker today was as open as I’ve ever seen him to letting the conference work its will,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who was one of the members Boehner had just last month purged from a coveted committee post.

But by late Tuesday night, Boehner was again going against the grain of most of his GOP conference: While the House gave final passage to the deal, Boehner's top lieutenant, Cantor, and the majority whip, McCarthy, joined a majority of House Republicans in opposing it.