Republicans: We’ve Got No Plans to Oust Boehner

The standoff over funding the Homeland Security Department has exposed the House speaker’s weaknesses—but Republicans say they’re not going after him.

Speaker of the House John Boehner arrives for his weekly news conference on Feb. 26.
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
Feb. 28, 2015, 8:36 a.m.

Re­ports of Speak­er John Boehner’s de­mise have been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated.

Frus­tra­tion is bub­bling over after a late-night House ses­sion, as Boehner’s al­lies spar with his de­tract­ors, and mem­bers openly ques­tion wheth­er a coup may be afoot. But con­ser­vat­ives main­tain they are not plot­ting to over­throw the speak­er, and mem­bers in­sist a mid-ses­sion coup would be un­suc­cess­ful any­way.

Though crit­ics have made veiled threats against lead­ers and sus­pi­cion of a coup abounds in me­dia re­ports after Fri­day night’s le­gis­lat­ive high jinks, the blow dealt to Boehner will most likely prove not to be fatal, and pro­ced­ur­al op­tions to re­move him are few.

“The speak­er has the strong sup­port of the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of House Re­pub­lic­ans — and he’s not go­ing any­where,” Boehner spokes­man Mi­chael Steel said.

Late Fri­day, rebels with­in the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence scuttled a lead­er­ship plan to avoid a par­tial shut­down of the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment for three weeks, be­fore lead­ers de­cided to rely on Demo­crat­ic votes to put off the lapse for just sev­en days. The the­ory goes that next week, con­ser­vat­ives will call for Boehner’s head if he caves to Demo­crat­ic de­mands to pass a Sen­ate-passed, full-year DHS fund­ing bill devoid of meas­ures rolling back Pres­id­ent Barack Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions on im­mig­ra­tion.

But there is no form­al plot to over­throw Boehner, said Rep. John Flem­ing, a found­ing mem­ber of the House Free­dom Caucus, the con­ser­vat­ive group at the cen­ter of the op­pos­i­tion. In­stead, he said the con­tro­versy is purely me­dia-driv­en.

“I have my dif­fer­ences with the speak­er at times, both on tac­tics and on policy,” Flem­ing said. “But we elec­ted him speak­er for two years, and there’s no dis­cus­sion or talk, among con­ser­vat­ives at least, about try­ing to re­move him.”

“There’s no plan right now that I know about,” ad­ded Rep. Wal­ter Jones, who voted against Boehner earli­er this year.

The spec­u­la­tion is not new. Ahead of the 2013 shut­down, mem­bers and staff also wondered wheth­er Boehner would face an im­me­di­ate chal­lenge if he al­lowed Con­gress to fund the gov­ern­ment without ex­pli­citly deny­ing funds to im­ple­ment the Af­ford­able Care Act.

But few take the threat ser­i­ously be­cause it is so far-fetched. The Con­sti­tu­tion does not lay out a pro­ced­ure for re­mov­ing a speak­er, but a 19th-cen­tury pro­ced­ur­al manu­al writ­ten by Thomas Jef­fer­son sets a path that has been in­cor­por­ated in­to the House rules. The most likely av­en­ue to chal­lenge Boehner is a pro­ced­ur­al mo­tion to va­cate the chair. Any mem­ber could call for it, and, if suc­cess­ful, it would re­move Boehner from the speak­er­ship. But it would be im­me­di­ately sub­ject to a mo­tion to table, and be­cause speak­ers are elec­ted by the whole House, not just the party in power, un­less any coup has up­ward of 27 par­ti­cipants, the 245-strong Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence could field a simple ma­jor­ity and kill it out­right. That scen­ario as­sumes all Demo­crats vote to va­cate the chair and against the mo­tion to table, and it is not clear the op­pos­i­tion party would want to plunge the cham­ber in­to that level of chaos, even to en­gage in one of their fa­vor­ite pas­times: em­bar­rass­ing Boehner.

If some­how a mo­tion to va­cate the chair did suc­ceed and Boehner were pushed out — per­haps if all 188 Demo­crats and some 27 Re­pub­lic­ans voted for it — House rules would call for the cham­ber to start de­bat­ing the mo­tion with­in two le­gis­lat­ive days, and mem­bers would be­gin to nom­in­ate oth­er can­did­ates. Yet past at­tempts at tak­ing down Boehner have shown there is no uni­fy­ing al­tern­at­ive. Of the 25 votes cast against him in Janu­ary’s speak­er elec­tion, the next-highest can­did­ate re­ceived 12, while mem­bers as far-flung as Rep. Ted Yoho and Sen. Rand Paul re­ceived one vote apiece. That his­tory causes Boehner’s al­lies to ques­tion the valid­ity of claims that he is in trouble.

“I prefer to be in the arena vot­ing than try­ing to pla­cate a small group of phony con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers who have no cred­ible policy pro­pos­als and no polit­ic­al strategy to stop Obama’s law­less­ness,” said Rep. Dev­in Nunes, a close ally of the speak­er. “While con­ser­vat­ive lead­ers are try­ing to move the ball up the field, these oth­er mem­bers sit in exot­ic places like base­ments of Mex­ic­an res­taur­ants and up­per levels of House of­fice build­ings, seem­ingly un­aware that they can’t ad­vance con­ser­vat­ism by play­ing fantasy foot­ball with their vot­ing cards.”

Even if the quix­ot­ic man­euver got to the point of nom­in­at­ing al­tern­at­ives, Rep. Mike Simpson, one of the speak­er’s close friends, said his al­lies would simply re­nom­in­ate Boehner. Those close to the speak­er be­lieve he has at least 150 back­ers, enough to block any oth­er Re­pub­lic­an can­did­acy.

“There’s enough of us that would say, ‘We’re not vot­ing for any­body else,’” he said. “‘If some­how you did something that made him step out and put up an­oth­er can­did­ate, we’re vot­ing for Boehner and you’re nev­er go­ing to have votes.’”

Still, in the worst case, the House would be forced in­to mul­tiple rounds of vot­ing and could meet a dead­lock. Re­pub­lic­ans could strike a deal with some Demo­crats to nom­in­ate a con­sensus can­did­ate — an un­likely scen­ario giv­en the po­lar­ized at­mo­sphere of today’s polit­ics. Or Boehner could step aside and Re­pub­lic­ans could agree to co­alesce around someone else. Yet al­lies warn that oth­er strong can­did­ates, like Rep. Paul Ry­an, do not want the job, while few oth­er mem­bers, not even Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy, have the seasoned fund-rais­ing in­fra­struc­ture and polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion it takes to lead the party.

The dif­fi­culty of over­throw­ing a speak­er in the middle of a term is ex­actly why it has nev­er happened be­fore. The mo­tion was in­voked against then-Speak­er Joseph Can­non in 1910, but he re­fused to step aside. (Al­though he lost the speak­er­ship later that year when his party lost the gen­er­al elec­tion.) Sim­il­arly, a back­room coup against then-Speak­er Newt Gin­grich failed in 1997 when he re­fused to cede power. (Iron­ic­ally, Boehner was a key fig­ure in that in­sur­rec­tion.)

The plot could work, then, only if it em­bar­rassed Boehner to the point where he de­cided to will­ingly step aside — and some of his al­lies do won­der wheth­er he has had enough with be­ing con­stantly un­der­cut.

“This has got to have an af­fect on him, per­son­ally, just psy­cho­lo­gic­ally. To have to go to the mat on these is­sues. He ran for it, he knows what the job en­tails, but we cer­tainly made it pretty dif­fi­cult on him when we seem to fight so much among ourselves,” Rep. Steve Womack said. “From the speak­er elec­tion to the oth­er is­sues, he’s just been really put through the pro­cess. I hate it that our con­fer­ence has so many is­sues, so many fac­tions among it­self, that we can’t get our team to­geth­er and all be singing off the same sheet of mu­sic.”

The fact that the con­fer­ence is so fac­tion­al­ized re­mains among the top reas­ons Boehner still holds the gavel. Rep. Daniel Web­ster, the former speak­er of the Flor­ida House, came the closest yet to de­thron­ing Boehner when he at­trac­ted 12 votes on the House floor earli­er this year — nearly half of the 25 Re­pub­lic­ans who cast their bal­lots for someone oth­er than Boehner.

“In the end, I don’t know that I caused any prob­lems, I think I just re­vealed an un­der­ly­ing prob­lem, and it may not be enough to be con­cerned about. But there is an un­der­ly­ing prob­lem,” Web­ster said.

It is pos­sible that when it comes time to elect a speak­er in 2017, the op­pos­i­tion will have grown and or­gan­ized. After all, mem­bers said, if the first two months of the year are any in­dic­a­tion, it is go­ing to be a long two years. But as to why Boehner has been able to re­main in power, des­pite his trav­ails, fits and starts, fail­ures and near fail­ures, and at­tempts to un­seat him, Web­ster said only:

“He’s got more sup­port than I did.”

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