House Conservatives Plot to Oust Boehner, Put Scare Into Cantor

One plan: Force the speaker to step aside before the new year.

House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, speaks with Republican Whip Eric Cantor, R-VA, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., November 3, 2010.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
April 10, 2014, 4:22 a.m.

Sev­er­al dozen frus­trated House con­ser­vat­ives are schem­ing to in­filt­rate the GOP lead­er­ship next year — pos­sibly by for­cing Speak­er John Boehner to step aside im­me­di­ately after Novem­ber’s midterm elec­tions.

The con­ser­vat­ives’ ex­as­per­a­tion with lead­er­ship is well known. And now, in dis­creet din­ners at the Cap­it­ol Hill Club and in wind­ing, hy­po­thet­ic­al-laced email chains, they’re try­ing to fig­ure out what to do about it. Some say it’s enough to co­alesce be­hind — and start whip­ping votes for — a single con­ser­vat­ive lead­er­ship can­did­ate. Oth­ers want to cut a deal with Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor: We’ll back you for speak­er if you prom­ise to bring aboard a con­ser­vat­ive lieu­ten­ant.

But there’s a more au­da­cious op­tion on the table, ac­cord­ing to con­ser­vat­ives in­volved in the de­lib­er­a­tions. They say between 40 and 50 mem­bers have already com­mit­ted verbally to elect­ing a new speak­er. If those num­bers hold, or­gan­izers say, they could force Boehner to step aside as speak­er in late Novem­ber, when the in­com­ing GOP con­fer­ence meets for the first time, by show­ing him that he won’t have the votes to be reelec­ted in Janu­ary.

The mas­ter­minds of this mutiny are try­ing to stay in the shad­ows for as long as pos­sible to avoid put­ting a tar­get on their backs. But one Re­pub­lic­an said the “nuc­le­us”of the re­bel­lion can be found in­side the House Liberty Caucus, of which he and his com­rades are mem­bers. This is not sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing that some of the key play­ers in that group — Justin Amash of Michigan, Raul Lab­rador of Idaho, and Thomas Massie of Ken­tucky — were among the 12 Re­pub­lic­ans who re­fused to back Boehner’s reelec­tion in Janu­ary 2013.

Amash, chair­man of the Liberty Caucus, warned at the time that there would be a “lar­ger re­bel­lion” down the road if Boehner’s lead­er­ship team did not bring con­ser­vat­ives in­to the fold. Such an in­sur­rec­tion nev­er ma­ter­i­al­ized, however, as Boehner deftly nav­ig­ated a series of chal­lenges last year and wound up win­ning over some of the mal­con­tents.

But con­ser­vat­ives, in­creas­ingly ir­rit­ated with what they see as a cau­tious ap­proach taken by their lead­er­ship, are now adam­ant that Boehner’s ten­ure should ex­pire with this Con­gress.

“There are no big ideas com­ing out of the con­fer­ence. Our lead­er­ship ex­pects to coast through this elec­tion by bank­ing on every­one’s hatred for Obama­care,” said one Re­pub­lic­an law­maker who is or­gan­iz­ing the re­bel­lion. “There’s noth­ing big be­ing done. We’re re­shuff­ling chairs on the Ti­tan­ic.”

Boehner isn’t the only tar­get. The con­ser­vat­ives find fault with the en­tire lead­er­ship team. Privately, they define suc­cess as vault­ing one of their own in­to any one of the top three lead­er­ship spots. But they think they’re less likely to ac­com­plish even that lim­ited goal with a nar­row ef­fort fo­cused on knock­ing out one per­son or win­ning a single slot. That’s why this time around, un­like the ham-fis­ted mutiny of 2013, rebels are broad­en­ing their of­fens­ive bey­ond Boehner’s gavel.

Can­tor, next in line for speak­er and once con­sidered a shoo-in to suc­ceed Boehner, has found him­self in con­ser­vat­ives’ crosshairs in re­cent weeks.

With Boehner out of town in late March, Can­tor was charged with push­ing a “doc fix” bill across the fin­ish line. When it be­came ap­par­ent the meas­ure might not clear the House floor, Can­tor au­thor­ized a voice vote, al­low­ing the bill to pass without re­gistered res­ist­ance. This man­euver in­furi­ated con­ser­vat­ives, who felt that lead­er­ship — Can­tor in par­tic­u­lar — had cheated them. Rep. Mick Mul­vaney of South Car­oline yelled “Bull­shit!” out­side the House cham­ber.

Some con­ser­vat­ives are still seeth­ing.

“I’m get­ting used to be­ing de­ceived by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, but when my own lead­er­ship does it, it’s just not ac­cept­able,” Rep. Matt Sal­mon of Ari­zona said last week, after Can­tor met with a group of angry Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee mem­bers.

Can­tor told con­ser­vat­ives that a voice vote was “the least-bad op­tion,” giv­en the cir­cum­stances. But many Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t buy­ing it. Moreover, they said that with Boehner out of town, Can­tor had an op­por­tun­ity to im­press them with his man­age­ment of the con­fer­ence — and didn’t.

“It’s an is­sue of trust. If you want to have a ma­jor­ity that is gov­ern­ing, and a ma­jor­ity that is fol­low­ing the lead­er, the rest of us need to be in a po­s­i­tion where we trust our lead­er­ship,” Lab­rador said this week, adding, “When you have politi­cians ac­tu­ally play­ing tricks on their own party, and their own mem­bers of Con­gress, I think that erodes the trust the Amer­ic­an people have in the rest of us.”

“I can’t think of a time where I felt my trust had been more vi­ol­ated since I’ve been here — and that’s pretty stiff com­pet­i­tion,” Mul­vaney ad­ded.

Can­tor’s al­lies say the whole epis­ode has been over­blown. But there’s no ques­tion that it has stirred fresh dis­il­lu­sion­ment with­in the rank and file. And it’s not just the tea-party mem­bers up in arms. One House Re­pub­lic­an who is friendly with Can­tor, and hardly viewed as a trouble­maker, pre­dicted, “If there’s an­oth­er vote like [that], Eric won’t be speak­er. Ever.”

This back­lash has em­boldened some of lead­er­ship’s con­ser­vat­ive crit­ics. Now, they say, they might try to force Boehner out and also de­mand that Can­tor bring on a con­ser­vat­ive deputy be­fore agree­ing to vote for him as speak­er.

“Eric would make that deal in a heart­beat,” said a Re­pub­lic­an law­maker who sup­ports Can­tor but op­poses Boehner.

Neither Can­tor nor his of­fice would com­ment on lead­er­ship races.

Even if Can­tor does as­cend to speak­er, there could be fire­works fur­ther down the lead­er­ship lad­der. Doubts per­sist about wheth­er Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy, Can­tor’s closest friend in Con­gress, should earn a pro­mo­tion to ma­jor­ity lead­er. The Cali­for­ni­an is uni­ver­sally well liked, but some col­leagues aren’t sold on his per­form­ance as whip. And if Mc­Carthy does earn the No. 2 spot, there will al­most cer­tainly be a free-for-all to suc­ceed him as whip, im­per­il­ing the ex­pec­ted ad­vance of Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam.

Amid all the bold talk about Boehner and Can­tor and the oth­er lead­ers, some con­ser­vat­ives are think­ing smal­ler. There is talk of meet­ing with lead­er­ship of­fi­cials this fall and mak­ing de­mands about steer­ing com­mit­tee ap­point­ments and chair­man­ships. The idea would be to re­dis­trib­ute the de­cision-mak­ing and shake up what Rep. Louie Gohmert calls the “cent­ral­ized, stovepipe dic­tat­or­ship” that runs the con­gres­sion­al wing of the GOP.

Some mem­bers are con­vinced that Boehner will spare every­one the drama and de­cide to leave on his own. Sources close to the speak­er have be­gun leav­ing the exit door ever so slightly open, and ru­mors of his re­tire­ment are now run­ning rampant throughout the con­fer­ence.

“All of this hinges on wheth­er John is run­ning for reelec­tion,” Mul­vaney, who re­fused to vote for Boehner’s reelec­tion in 2013, said of the po­ten­tial lead­er­ship shuff­ling.

“I’d say about 80 per­cent of us ex­pect him to step down after the elec­tions,” ad­ded one House Re­pub­lic­an who has known Boehner for many years.

Boehner in­sists that he’ll seek an­oth­er term as speak­er.

“Speak­er Boehner is fo­cused on the Amer­ic­an people’s top pri­or­ity: help­ing our eco­nomy cre­ate more private sec­tor jobs,” said Boehner spokes­man Mi­chael Steel. “He has also said — pub­licly and privately — that he plans to be speak­er again in the next Con­gress.”

But con­ser­vat­ive plot­ters prom­ise that, un­like 15 months ago, they’ve got the num­bers to pre­vent that from hap­pen­ing. Even if they can’t re­cruit an al­tern­at­ive to pit against him, they’ll tell Boehner in the Novem­ber con­fer­ence meet­ing that they plan to vote against him on the House floor in Janu­ary “un­til king­dom come,” one GOP law­maker said.

It’s sim­il­ar to the strategy con­ser­vat­ives used in 1998 to de­pose Speak­er Newt Gin­grich, who gave up his gavel in Novem­ber once it be­came ap­par­ent that con­ser­vat­ives had the num­bers to block his reelec­tion on the floor in Janu­ary. In this case, Boehner won’t be able to win a ma­jor­ity vote of the House if a large bloc of con­ser­vat­ives sticks to­geth­er and votes against him. Soon­er rather than later, the con­ser­vat­ives pre­dict, the speak­er would spare him­self that hu­mi­li­ation and step aside.

But as of yet, there is no sign of a ser­i­ous con­ser­vat­ive chal­lenger will­ing to run for a top lead­er­ship job, let alone for Boehner’s.

Or­gan­izers are act­ively re­cruit­ing two highly re­spec­ted con­ser­vat­ives — Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Jim Jordan of Ohio — hop­ing that one will agree to lead their op­pos­i­tion move­ment. But both have told col­leagues they aren’t in­ter­ested. And the oth­er fre­quently dis­cussed scen­ari­os, such as RSC Chair­man Steve Scal­ise run­ning for whip, would hardly qual­i­fy as the splash con­ser­vat­ives are de­term­ined to make.

The at­temp­ted over­throw in 2013 failed in part be­cause con­ser­vat­ives didn’t have an al­tern­at­ive can­did­ate for on-the-fence Re­pub­lic­ans to rally around. Now, with each passing day, or­gan­izers fear his­tory could re­peat it­self.

“Some­body has to step for­ward,” said Rep. Tim Huel­skamp of Kan­sas, one of 12 Re­pub­lic­ans who re­fused to back Boehner’s reelec­tion in 2013. “This is not something where after the elec­tion you can step for­ward. There’s go­ing to be months and months of [plan­ning] needed.”

Al­lies of the cur­rent lead­er­ship team dis­miss the le­git­im­acy of any chal­lenge to the rul­ing or­der, and they pre­dict that any con­ser­vat­ive coup — es­pe­cially one aimed at win­ning the speak­er­ship — will fail. One seni­or Re­pub­lic­an said that there are only “three Re­pub­lic­ans cap­able of win­ning ma­jor­ity sup­port to be­come speak­er of the House: John Boehner, Eric Can­tor, and Paul Ry­an.”

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