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.”