Trouble for Boehner's Speakership?

Billy House

John Boehner’s speakership is suddenly “on the ropes,” says at least one outside conservative group after Thursday night’s head-spinning developments that saw the Republican leader scrap a vote on his own plan to avert the year-end “fiscal cliff” because not enough members of his party would support it.

“Speaker Boehner said today's bill would pass. His credibility as a leader has evaporated,” declared Ron Meyer a spokesman for American Majority Action, a Virginia-based group, which has trained thousands of conservative activists and says it predates the tea party movement.

Meyer’s group was in contact with members and keeping track Thursday of the lack of support for Boehner’s bill, and by early evening was predicting correctly that a lack of conservative support for the speaker’s plan—more than 30 opposed it—meant it would not pass if voted on.

Boehner’s pulling back—at least for now—on floor consideration of his own Plan B option that would let taxes rise only on those with annual incomes of $1 million or higher further muddles Washington’s efforts to resolve a partisan stalemate over about $500 billion in year-end tax increases and spending cuts. Economists warn that going over the cliff could send the country into a recession.

Even before Boehner pulled his “Plan B” off the floor Thursday night and lawmakers departed for their holiday recess, American Majority had already this month launched an effort to oust Boehner as speaker, focusing on about 100 House Republicans members. The group sought to convince enough of them to vote for someone else in the upcoming speaker’s election on Jan. 3 that will kick off the new 113th congressional session.

Meyer’s group now says the lack of votes Thursday night for the House GOP leader’s Plan B tax measure is a vote of no confidence for Boehner by his conference.

House Budget Committee ranking Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said Thursday night’s events were "very embarrassing” for the Speaker.

"He cannot control his own Republican caucus," he said on MSNBC. "He couldn't even sell his bad plan"

But not everyone agreed with Meyer that Boehner’s leadership might be in peril.

Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, who is close to Boehner, said the idea that this episode has hurt Boehner’s speakership is, “like saying the superintendent of an insane asylum should be discharged because he couldn’t control the crazy people. I mean that’s nuts.”

The Ohio Republican had unveiled a new plan this week after declaring dissatisfaction with the latest offer in one-on-one negotiations with President Obama that he said would bring $1.3 trillion in new revenues for only $850 billion in net spending reductions.

The speaker characterized that plan—including Obama’s new offer to embrace a freeze on Bush-era tax rates set to expire for those who make up to $400,000 annually—as the president failing to present “a balanced offer.

But it quickly became clear that Boehner might not even be able to sell his own approach to House conservatives who appear opposed to letting tax rates on any level rise, and that his members might not deliver him enough votes. Thursday night’s events bore that out.

“Conservatives won a huge battle tonight. Speaker Boehner can't get away with his reckless political ploys anymore at the expense of our principles,” said Meyer. “His speakership is on the ropes, and the harder he pushes, the less likely he'll be speaker come January.”

That might sound far-fetched. But perhaps not—given the trouble he’s having securing votes for this bill. In fact, if all House members show up to vote that day, and actually cast ballots for someone, just 17 members of his own Republican conference can block Boehner’s reelection.

That’s because House Republicans are set to enter the new Congress holding 234 seats and the Democrats will have 200 seats (one of the House’s total 435 seats is to be vacant with the resignation last month of former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois).

And the linchpin of the emerging conservative “oust-Boehner” strategy rests on the House rule that to be elected as speaker, a candidate must receive an “absolute majority” of all House member votes cast for individuals.

Details contained in a Congressional Research Service analysis dated Jan. 6, 2011, titled, “Speakers of the House: Elections, 1913-2011,” confirm that a concerted effort by as few as 17 House conservatives could--in fact--throw this normally routine reelection process for Boehner into turmoil.

“Members normally vote for the [speaker] candidate of their own party conference, but may vote for any individual, whether nominated or not,” states the CRS report. “To be elected, a candidate must receive an absolute majority of all the votes cast for individuals. This number may be less than a majority (which will be 218) of the full membership of the House, because of vacancies, absentees, or members voting 'present.' "

In short, with Jackson having retired, as few as 17 House Republican members now can deny Boehner an “absolute majority” of the total 434 expected votes on Jan. 3, if all the Democrats back Pelosi.

Thursday night’s events followed the harsh line taken by Boehner early this month against four dissenters in his conference, at least three of whom are conservatives who have been butting heads with party leaders over government spending and the federal deficit.

One of those members, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, responded Thursday night to Boehner’s decision not to immediately proceed with a vote by saying that, “Republican leadership thought they could silence conservatives when they kicked us off our committees.”

“I’m glad that enough of my colleagues refused to back down from the threats and intimidation, thus preventing the Conference from abandoning our principles,”Huelskamp said.

But LaTourette played down Boehner’s troubles.

“Boehner’s having difficulty convincing a certain number of individuals in the conference to support the team,” LaTourette said.