Two years ago, conservatives couldn’t overthrow House Speaker John Boehner with a well-orchestrated plot to keep him from being elected. This year, they’re doing things differently; they’re trying to beat him without any plan at all.
Less than a day before the 114th Congress convened, on the heels of the most decisive Republican electoral victory in two decades, Boehner’s reelection as speaker appeared to be imperiled by what one Republican staffer called “six or seven cells of concern” among the House GOP caucus.
Two House Republicans, Ted Yoho of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas, have already offered themselves as candidates against Boehner in the past few days. Further, other dissident conservatives, led by Steve King of Iowa, are starting to rally around second-term Florida Republican Daniel Webster (as opposed to the long-deceased Massachusetts Whig of the same name) as an alternative to the incumbent. The goal isn’t necessarily to elect one of these candidates speaker. Instead, it’s simply to prevent Boehner from being reelected.
House rules require an absolute majority of members voting to choose a speaker. Under the presumption that all 434 members will show up on Tuesday, (one, Michael Grimm, has already resigned after pleading guilty to tax fraud) and no Democrats cross party lines, that means Boehner needs the support of 218 out of 246 Republicans. If 29 vote for someone else, the race for speaker goes to a second ballot for the first time in almost 100 years.
Already, 10 Republicans have declared they will vote for an alternative candidate and more seemed poised to join. Unlike 2013, when plotters worked out a scheme to push the speaker’s race to a second ballot but many blinked at the last minute, this effort seems to be ad hoc and focused around discontent over the Cromnibus budget bill that passed Congress by a narrow margin in December. Many conservatives rejected the cromnibus as a misguided Washington compromise that did nothing to defund Obamacare or reverse the president’s November executive order on illegal immigration. As a House Republican staffer told The Daily Beast, Boehner opponents seem to be rallying around the slogan “Remember the Cromnibus.” But, to overthrow Boehner, the rebels need to win newly elected members who weren’t even on Capitol Hill when the cromnibus passed less than a month ago.
Several Republicans won primaries in 2014 by running as ideologically pure conservatives who wanted new leadership in the House. Now, they face an awkward dilemma about whether to go through with their pledge to turn out Boehner now that they’re in Washington, D.C. Gary Palmer of Alabama, a newly elected member who said he in his primary that he’d vote against Boehner, told reporters in October that he would fulfill his pledge to oppose the Ohio Republican even though he now regrets making it. In contrast, Rick Allen, a newly elected Republican from Georgia who said he’d support “having new leadership in the House if elected,” has yet to respond to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Beast about whether he’d back Boehner.
For all this drama, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Boehner does not become speaker on Tuesday. His opponents have no clear alternative or strategy. Even on the off chance that they can muster enough votes to force a second ballot, it’s likely that the House leadership will be able to twist enough elbows for Boehner to ultimately prevail.
Instead, this episode serves as a clear test of how Boehner can manage what will be the biggest Republican caucus in the House since the Hoover administration. If he manages to pull through while limiting the number of dissidents, it’s a sign that the speaker might be able to finally enforce party discipline in his caucus. But a close run contest would indicate the opposite and point to yet another Congress where Boehner would have to tiptoe around conservatives in his party to accomplish anything of substance.