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.”