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.”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4879) }}

What We're Following See More »
Inside the AP’s Election Operation
2 hours ago
What’s the Average Household Income of a Trump Voter?
2 hours ago

Seventy-two thousand dollars, according to FiveThirtyEight. That's higher than the national average, as well as the average Clinton or Sanders voter, but lower than the average Kasich voter.

How Coal Country Went from Blue to Red
4 hours ago
History Already Being Less Kind to Hastert’s Leadership
7 hours ago

In light of his recent confessions, the speakership of Dennis Hastert is being judged far more harshly. The New York Times' Carl Hulse notes that in hindsight, Hastert now "fares poorly" on a number of fronts, from his handling of the Mark Foley page scandal to "an explosion" of earmarks to the weakening of committee chairmen. "Even his namesake Hastert rule—the informal standard that no legislation should be brought to a vote without the support of a majority of the majority — has come to be seen as a structural barrier to compromise."

Trump Ill Prepared for General Election
7 hours ago

Even if "[t]he Republican presidential nomination may be in his sights ... Trump has so far ignored vital preparations needed for a quick and effective transition to the general election. The New York businessman has collected little information about tens of millions of voters he needs to turn out in the fall. He's sent few people to battleground states compared with likely Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, accumulated little if any research on her, and taken no steps to build a network capable of raising the roughly $1 billion needed to run a modern-day general election campaign."