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For all the grumbling of conservatives, for all the heartburn and hand-wringing among moderate old bulls, one thing seems certain — short of a cataclysmic loss on Election Day, John Boehner will return as Speaker next year.
In interviews with Republicans from across seniority levels and the ideological spectrum, one theme remains constant — the Ohio Republican might have had his ups and downs, but he remains their leader.
“I’m considered one of the most conservative Members of the entire House. ... People that are more conservative than me make me nervous. So you’d think that I would be aware of any undertow or any plotting, and I’m certainly not,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said last week.
Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) agreed. “I don’t think anyone’s thinking about leadership and changes in leadership. I think everyone is focused on the job at hand. We’re excited we just got [the Violence Against Women Act] passed,” Buerkle said, arguing that the GOP’s leadership team has done a good job given Senate opposition to many of its priorities.
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) — the freshman firebrand known for his off-the-cuff assessments — fell neatly in line with those sentiments as well.
“Well, first thing is, you have the wrong premise. We won’t be losing seats. It ain’t gonna happen. It’s just not gonna happen. You might as well ask, ‘Next year, when you become a white guy ...’” West said.
Even privately, Republicans, many of whom are not always charitable in their assessment of Boehner’s leadership, said he won’t face much in the way of opposition, even if the GOP takes a thumping in November.
For instance, one Member who is “not exactly a Boehner guy” dismissed out of hand the idea of a challenge to the Speaker, even if Republican ranks were thinned by 15 or more seats — a level most prognosticators view as a massive defeat.
“No, no. It’s already cooked,” the lawmaker said in reference to the party’s top leadership next year.
One thing going for Boehner is the lack of a realistically viable candidate to run against him for Speaker. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) has found his fate very much tied up with that of Boehner’s, and despite occasional sparring between their offices, Cantor has made no moves to indicate he would even consider a challenge at this point.
Beyond Cantor, Republicans acknowledge there are no other Members who have the standing or support to mount an insurgency against Boehner.
In fact, a number of Members predicted that the sniping at Boehner that has come particularly from his right flank will likely subside over the next several weeks, as lawmakers turn squarely to their re-election bids.
“In a month, it’s shirts versus skins, man,” one lawmaker who has been critical of Boehner quipped.
Nevertheless, retiring Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) acknowledged that anytime a Speaker oversees a losing year, there might be pressure to step aside or shake up the leadership team.
Burton is in a unique position to judge Boehner’s standing. As one of former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (Ga.) closest allies, he bore personal witness to the Speaker’s demise in 1998, when Republicans lost five seats but retained their majority. Within three days of the elections, Gingrich resigned.
“Well I’ve been there when they went after Newt. I was one of Newt’s lieutenants, and he had me count votes for him the day that he went down the tubes. And I called him up and I says, ‘You don’t have 218,’” Burton said.
“There was silence on the phone. He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well there’s probably 15 or 20 guys that aren’t going to vote for you, so you’re not going to get 218,’” Burton continued.
To be sure, there are significant differences between Boehner and Gingrich — in July 1997 Gingrich faced a failed coup attempt, and his bombastic personality had long been seen as a liability to the party.
Neither of those issues has been a problem for Boehner, who remains deeply popular within his Conference on a personal level. And aside from occasional ribbing for his penchant for crying, he has never been viewed as a public image liability.
“Boehner’s goal is to have a personal relationship with every House Republican Member. He is proud of the progress our team has made on the American people’s priorities at a time when Washington is still controlled by Democrats — and he’s eager to accomplish more,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
Indeed, sources close to Boehner said Gingrich’s rise and fall have served as a cautionary tale for Boehner, who as one source noted, “had a front row seat” during Gingrich’s fall from grace.
Still, Gingrich wasn’t forced out until the GOP suffered losses during the 1998 midterm elections. It was President Bill Clinton’s second midterm election, and opposition parties typically gain House seats during midterm elections.
“It does happen. But I think Boehner’s a pretty smart politician. And I think Cantor’s a smart politician. I think they’re both smart. And I don’t see, if we retain the House and things go fairly well, I don’t see a big change,” Burton said.
At least for now, even some of Boehner’s critics are discounting the prospect of a bad year.
“There’s a frustration with this president and his policies. I think it’s going to be a good year for Republicans,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) said.