Possible Rules Change Could Punish Boehner Dissidents

Plan floated to strip committee slots from members who rebel during floor vote for speaker.

US Representative John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, holds up his gavel after being re-elected as Speaker of the House alongside US Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California and returning Minority Leader, during the opening session of the 113th US House of Representatives at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 3, 2013.  
National Journal
Daniel Newhauser and Tim Alberta
Add to Briefcase
Daniel Newhauser and Tim Alberta
Sept. 19, 2014, 8:20 a.m.

House Re­pub­lic­ans are quietly dis­cuss­ing a pro­pos­al that could fun­da­ment­ally al­ter the way fu­ture speak­ers of the House are chosen, ac­cord­ing to mul­tiple GOP sources, with the ob­ject­ive of avoid­ing a re­peat of John Boehner’s em­bar­rass­ing reelec­tion vote in 2013.

The rule tweak began as an in­form­al dis­cus­sion but has morph­ed in­to a con­crete pro­pos­al that is be­gin­ning to cir­cu­late in the House. Ac­cord­ing to people briefed on it, any Re­pub­lic­an who votes on the House floor in Janu­ary against the con­fer­ence’s nom­in­ee for House speak­er—that is, the can­did­ate chosen by a ma­jor­ity of the House GOP dur­ing its closed-door lead­er­ship elec­tions in Novem­ber—would be severely pun­ished. Spe­cific­ally, sources say, any dis­sent­ers would be stripped of all com­mit­tee as­sign­ments for that Con­gress. “There’s a real con­cern that there’s between 30 and 40 people that would vote against the speak­er on the House floor, so they’re try­ing to change the con­fer­ence rules to make sure that doesn’t hap­pen,” said a GOP mem­ber fa­mil­i­ar with the pro­pos­al. At the same, time, ac­cord­ing to sources, con­ser­vat­ive law­makers are dis­cuss­ing something of a counter-pro­pos­al. Un­der their plan, the Novem­ber lead­er­ship elec­tions would be pushed back un­til after the lame-duck ses­sion of Con­gress ends in Decem­ber. This idea was de­scribed by one House con­ser­vat­ive as a pree­mpt­ive strike to warn lead­er­ship not to con­sider any sig­ni­fic­ant le­gis­la­tion dur­ing the 15-day “lame-duck” peri­od between Novem­ber’s midterm elec­tions and the start of the new Con­gress. This pro­pos­al, in light of the pro­posed pelaties for vot­ing against the speak­er in Janu­ary, could also be aimed at giv­ing a chal­lenger ad­di­tion­al time to or­gan­ize sup­port­ers for the con­fer­ence elec­tions. Even if the first pro­pos­al is ad­op­ted, Re­pub­lic­ans would still be al­lowed to vote for any­one in those closed-door in­tern­al elec­tions, dur­ing which mem­bers choose their lead­er­ship of­fi­cials for the next Con­gress. But once a ma­jor­ity of the con­fer­ence has voted for their can­did­ate as speak­er, that de­cision will be fi­nal. When the House holds its cham­ber-wide vote for speak­er on the first day of the new Con­gress, all Re­pub­lic­ans will be ex­pec­ted to sup­port the party’s nom­in­ee. Next year, bar­ring any sur­prise de­vel­op­ment, Boehner will be that nom­in­ee. It’s un­clear the de­gree to which lead­er­ship is in­volved with push­ing the pro­pos­al. Ac­cord­ing to Re­pub­lic­ans close to the situ­ation, the plan was not au­thored by or cir­cu­lated with­in Boehner’s team. In­stead, they say, the speak­er’s al­lies in the rank-and-file are pro­mot­ing the idea as a way to avoid an­oth­er awk­ward dis­play of in­tra-party rivalry at the start of the 114th Con­gress. Still, it’s dif­fi­cult to ima­gine Boehner’s friends mov­ing for­ward with such a drastic plan without his ap­prov­al, if not sup­port. “There are mem­bers frus­trated with oth­er mem­bers about what happened last time,” said a seni­or Re­pub­lic­an. Twelve House Re­pub­lic­ans re­fused to vote for Boehner’s reelec­tion in Janu­ary 2013 at the out­set of the 113th Con­gress. This level of dis­sent was in­suf­fi­cient to oust Boehner from the speak­er­ship, but served to em­bar­rass the speak­er and pub­licly air the party’s dirty laun­dry. The in­cid­ent in­furi­ated Boehner’s al­lies, who claimed no op­pos­i­tion was voiced privately dur­ing the con­fer­ence elec­tions—an af­front to the tra­di­tion­al pro­cess of keep­ing in­tern­al cam­paigns private. Still, even with plenty of mem­bers still up­set over that 2013 in­cid­ent, ad­opt­ing this pro­pos­al won’t be easy. A ma­jor­ity of House Re­pub­lic­ans must vote for any change to the con­fer­ence rules, and some law­makers would cer­tainly op­pose the change. Such sweep­ing pun­it­ive meas­ures would be dif­fi­cult to keep un­der wraps, such as Boehner and the Steer­ing Com­mit­tee did in late 2012 when three out­spoken con­ser­vat­ives were kicked off com­mit­tees for fail­ing to sup­port party ini­ti­at­ives. “The speak­er at any one point in time has prob­ably 90 to 100 votes, for sure. So it’s just a mat­ter of mak­ing the case to a mere 20 folks or so and get the rule changed. But I think there would be a lot of people who would still vote for the speak­er, but would have a real hard time with that kind of rule change,” said the first Re­pub­lic­an mem­ber. The tim­ing of this pro­posed rule tweak is es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing. Nobody is ex­pec­ted to com­pete with Boehner for the speak­er­ship next Con­gress, much less beat him. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chair­man of the Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, has quietly con­sidered a cam­paign against Boehner. But Hensarling’s al­lies ar­gue that Eric Can­tor’s resig­na­tion this sum­mer, which triggered a lead­er­ship shake-up and for­ti­fied Boehner’s po­s­i­tion atop the con­fer­ence, make it highly un­likely Hensarling will seek the speak­er­ship. “I don’t think you’ll see that kind of drama,” Rep. Paul Ry­an, a close friend of Hensarling, told Na­tion­al Journ­al earli­er this month. “I think Jeb would look at it if there were an open seat. But I don’t think an open seat is go­ing to oc­cur.” It seems, then, the pro­pos­al is aimed more broadly at pre­vent­ing an­oth­er con­ten­tious lead­er­ship elec­tion that feeds the nar­rat­ive about di­vi­sions with­in the GOP. And it may be aimed par­tic­u­larly at fresh­men en­ter­ing the House next year, some of whom have said on the cam­paign trail that they would re­fuse to vote for Boehner. Tea-party-aligned can­did­ates in Alabama, Geor­gia, and North Car­o­lina have already said they will not sup­port the speak­er. It also comes as mem­bers close to the speak­er have been circ­ling the wag­ons over the last few months. Reps. Dev­in Nunes, Pat Tiberi, and Tom Cole, some of Boehner’s in­ner circle, have been try­ing to force mem­bers to pay their dues to the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, and if they don’t they don’t get to sit on A-level com­mit­tees, such as Ways and Means. On that top­ic, Cap­it­ol Hill has also been abuzz in re­cent days about the oth­er po­ten­tial pro­ced­ur­al changes — push­ing back the con­fer­ence lead­er­ship elec­tions. Con­ser­vat­ives could make the case that mem­bers won’t have suf­fi­cient evid­ence by which to judge the new lead­er­ship team that took over in late June. And, in­deed, some already have hin­ted that Kev­in Mc­Carthy and Steve Scal­ise — the new ma­jor­ity lead­er and ma­jor­ity whip, re­spect­ively — should be eval­u­ated primar­ily by their de­cision-mak­ing dur­ing the lame-duck peri­od. Still, it’s dif­fi­cult to ima­gine a ma­jor­ity of the con­fer­ence sup­port­ing such a pro­pos­al. From a lo­gist­ic­al stand­point, res­chedul­ing the con­fer­ence elec­tions—which tra­di­tion­ally over­lap with fresh­men ori­ent­a­tion, so that in­com­ing mem­bers may par­ti­cip­ate—could prove im­possible at this late stage. More im­port­antly, most Re­pub­lic­ans are call­ing for unity head­ing in­to the next ses­sion of Con­gress, and sev­er­al lead­ing con­ser­vat­ives ac­know­ledged Thursday that there likely won’t be a con­tested lead­er­ship race any­way. “I don’t see any­body right now go­ing for­ward and mount­ing a chal­lenge to the speak­er,” said Rep. Raul Lab­rador, who lost his bid this sum­mer for ma­jor­ity lead­er.

The rule tweak began as an in­form­al dis­cus­sion but has morph­ed in­to a con­crete pro­pos­al that is be­gin­ning to cir­cu­late in the House. Ac­cord­ing to people briefed on it, any Re­pub­lic­an who votes on the House floor in Janu­ary against the con­fer­ence’s nom­in­ee for House speak­er—that is, the can­did­ate chosen by a ma­jor­ity of the House GOP dur­ing its closed-door lead­er­ship elec­tions in Novem­ber—would be severely pun­ished. Spe­cific­ally, sources say, any dis­sent­ers would be stripped of all com­mit­tee as­sign­ments for that Con­gress.

“There’s a real con­cern that there’s between 30 and 40 people that would vote against the speak­er on the House floor, so they’re try­ing to change the con­fer­ence rules to make sure that doesn’t hap­pen,” said a GOP mem­ber fa­mil­i­ar with the pro­pos­al.

At the same, time, ac­cord­ing to sources, con­ser­vat­ive law­makers are dis­cuss­ing something of a counter-pro­pos­al. Un­der their plan, the Novem­ber lead­er­ship elec­tions would be pushed back un­til after the lame-duck ses­sion of Con­gress ends in Decem­ber. This idea was de­scribed by one House con­ser­vat­ive as a pree­mpt­ive strike to warn lead­er­ship not to con­sider any sig­ni­fic­ant le­gis­la­tion dur­ing the 15-day peri­od between Novem­ber’s midterm elec­tions and the start of the new Con­gress in Janu­ary.

This idea, in light of the pro­posed pelaties for vot­ing against the speak­er in Janu­ary, could also be aimed at giv­ing po­ten­tial chal­lengers ad­di­tion­al time to or­gan­ize sup­port for the con­fer­ence elec­tions. Be­cause it would need to be as­sen­ted to by the cur­rent lead­er­ship, it stands al­most no chance of be­ing im­ple­men­ted.

Even if the first pro­pos­al is ad­op­ted, Re­pub­lic­ans would still be al­lowed to vote for any­one in those closed-door in­tern­al elec­tions, dur­ing which mem­bers choose their lead­er­ship of­fi­cials for the next Con­gress. But once a ma­jor­ity of the con­fer­ence has voted for their can­did­ate as speak­er, that de­cision will be fi­nal. When the House holds its cham­ber-wide vote for speak­er on the first day of the new Con­gress, all Re­pub­lic­ans will be ex­pec­ted to sup­port the party’s nom­in­ee. Next year, bar­ring any sur­prise de­vel­op­ment, Boehner will be that nom­in­ee.

It’s un­clear the de­gree to which lead­er­ship is in­volved with push­ing the pro­pos­al. Ac­cord­ing to Re­pub­lic­ans close to the situ­ation, the plan was not au­thored by or cir­cu­lated with­in Boehner’s team. In­stead, they say, the speak­er’s al­lies in the rank-and-file are pro­mot­ing the idea as a way to avoid an­oth­er awk­ward dis­play of in­tra-party rivalry at the start of the 114th Con­gress. Still, it’s dif­fi­cult to ima­gine Boehner’s friends mov­ing for­ward with such a drastic plan without his ap­prov­al, if not sup­port.

“There are mem­bers frus­trated with oth­er mem­bers about what happened last time,” said a seni­or Re­pub­lic­an.

Twelve House Re­pub­lic­ans re­fused to vote for Boehner’s reelec­tion in Janu­ary 2013 at the out­set of the 113th Con­gress. This level of dis­sent was in­suf­fi­cient to oust Boehner from the speak­er­ship, but served to em­bar­rass the speak­er and pub­licly air the party’s dirty laun­dry. The in­cid­ent in­furi­ated Boehner’s al­lies, who claimed no op­pos­i­tion was voiced privately dur­ing the con­fer­ence elec­tions—an af­front to the tra­di­tion­al pro­cess of keep­ing in­tern­al cam­paigns private.

Still, even with plenty of mem­bers still up­set over that 2013 in­cid­ent, ad­opt­ing this pro­pos­al won’t be easy. A ma­jor­ity of House Re­pub­lic­ans must vote for any change to the con­fer­ence rules, and some law­makers would cer­tainly op­pose the change. Such sweep­ing pun­it­ive meas­ures would be dif­fi­cult to keep un­der wraps, such as Boehner and the Steer­ing Com­mit­tee did in late 2012 when three out­spoken con­ser­vat­ives were kicked off com­mit­tees for fail­ing to sup­port party ini­ti­at­ives.

“The speak­er at any one point in time has prob­ably 90 to 100 votes, for sure. So it’s just a mat­ter of mak­ing the case to a mere 20 folks or so and get the rule changed. But I think there would be a lot of people who would still vote for the speak­er, but would have a real hard time with that kind of rule change,” said the first Re­pub­lic­an mem­ber.

Rep. Raul Lab­rador, one of the 12 who re­fused to vote for Boehner’s reelec­tion last year, called the idea “ter­ribly mis­guided.”

“It would cre­ate more di­vi­sion and ac­tu­ally en­cour­age people to vote against Boehner on the floor,” said Lab­rador, who earli­er this year failed to win Can­tor’s lead­er­ship post in a spe­cial elec­tion.

The tim­ing of this pro­posed rule tweak is es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing. Nobody is ex­pec­ted to com­pete with Boehner for the speak­er­ship next Con­gress, much less beat him. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chair­man of the Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, has quietly con­sidered a cam­paign against Boehner. But Hensarling’s al­lies ar­gue that Eric Can­tor’s resig­na­tion this sum­mer, which triggered a lead­er­ship shake-up and for­ti­fied Boehner’s po­s­i­tion atop the con­fer­ence, make it highly un­likely Hensarling will seek the speak­er­ship.

“I don’t think you’ll see that kind of drama,” Rep. Paul Ry­an, a close friend of Hensarling, told Na­tion­al Journ­al earli­er this month. “I think Jeb would look at it if there were an open seat. But I don’t think an open seat is go­ing to oc­cur.”

It seems, then, the pro­pos­al is meant more broadly to pre­vent an­oth­er con­ten­tious lead­er­ship elec­tion that feeds the nar­rat­ive about di­vi­sions with­in the GOP. And it may be aimed par­tic­u­larly at fresh­men en­ter­ing the House next year, some of whom have said on the cam­paign trail that they would re­fuse to vote for Boehner. Tea-party-aligned can­did­ates in Alabama, Geor­gia, and North Car­o­lina have already said they will not sup­port the speak­er.

It also comes as mem­bers close to the speak­er have been circ­ling the wag­ons over the last few months. Reps. Dev­in Nunes, Pat Tiberi, and Tom Cole, some of Boehner’s in­ner circle, have been try­ing to force mem­bers to pay their dues to the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, and if they don’t they don’t get to sit on A-level com­mit­tees, such as Ways and Means.

Cap­it­ol Hill has also been abuzz in re­cent days about the oth­er po­ten­tial pro­ced­ur­al change be­ing dis­cussed — push­ing back the con­fer­ence lead­er­ship elec­tions.

Con­ser­vat­ives could make the case that mem­bers won’t have suf­fi­cient evid­ence by which to judge the new lead­er­ship team that took over in late June. And, in­deed, some already have hin­ted that Kev­in Mc­Carthy and Steve Scal­ise — the new ma­jor­ity lead­er and ma­jor­ity whip, re­spect­ively — should be eval­u­ated primar­ily by their de­cision-mak­ing dur­ing the lame-duck peri­od.

Still, it’s dif­fi­cult to ima­gine a ma­jor­ity of the con­fer­ence sup­port­ing such a pro­pos­al. From a lo­gist­ic­al stand­point, res­chedul­ing the con­fer­ence elec­tions—which tra­di­tion­ally over­lap with fresh­men ori­ent­a­tion, so that in­com­ing mem­bers may par­ti­cip­ate—could prove im­possible at this late stage.

More im­port­antly, most Re­pub­lic­ans are call­ing for unity head­ing in­to the next ses­sion of Con­gress, and sev­er­al lead­ing con­ser­vat­ives ac­know­ledged Thursday that there likely won’t be a con­tested lead­er­ship race any­way.

“I don’t see any­body right now go­ing for­ward and mount­ing a chal­lenge to the speak­er,” Lab­rador said.

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