218: House Conservatives Agitate for Change in Leadership -- but Can They Take Boehner's Gavel?

Conservatives are increasingly — and not so quietly — showing the early signs of a speakership revolt. But short of a sudden groundswell of opposition from the GOP rank and file, or a magic wand, Speaker John A. Boehner is the one who controls his fate.

Just don’t tell that to the Ohio Republican’s foes.

“I think pretty well everybody’s figured Mr. Boehner’s going to be gone, and the question is Cantor and McCarthy,” said Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. “But most conservatives are saying it’s not just at the top; it’s all the way through.”

Huelskamp, who was more than an active player in the last Boehner coup, told CQ Roll Call there are “a lot of meetings going on” about who could be speaker in the 114th Congress, and if Boehner should decide to say, conservatives are discussing how to remove him.

“I think there’s efforts underway to do that,” Huelskamp said.

It’s common congressional knowledge that Huelskamp and Boehner aren’t the best of friends. Boehner stripped Huelskamp of his seat on Financial Services for the 113th. And Huelskamp had a whip list the last time conservatives tried to usurp the speakership. Recently asked about his relationship with Boehner, Huelskamp summed it up this way: “I don’t smoke and I don’t suntan.”

The plan to ditch Boehner sounds similar to the GOP rebellion that ousted Newt Gingrich at the end of 1998: present the speaker with so much opposition behind closed doors that he’s forced to step aside.

But unlike Gingrich, it’s not the rank-and-file opposing Boehner, it’s not GOP leaders; Boehner’s opposition is localized to the same dissident conservatives who have been a thorn in his side for years.

Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said his boss has “a better relationship with his members right now than at any time.”

“As he has said many times, he fully expects to be speaker again next Congress,” Buck said. And Boehner lieutenants backed those statements up.

Rep. Tom Cole, who said he didn’t want to “speculate on what I don’t think is going to happen,” told CQ Roll Call this week that Boehner’s standing is “awfully strong” within the GOP conference.

“Any effort, I think, to upset the conference’s decision is really not an attack on John Boehner; it’s an attack on the Republican conference,” Cole said. “It didn’t work last time, it’s not going to work the next time.”

Another Boehner ally, Republican Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, noted that it’s difficult to satisfy everyone, but he said Boehner is better than most at uniting the GOP conference.

“It would be hard for me to say that there’s actually someone better to gather everyone together,” he said.

And Kelly thinks Boehner is poised to stay in power, “especially if we are able to take the Senate.”

If Republicans take control of the Senate, it’s difficult to imagine Boehner stepping aside. And even if the GOP doesn’t win the Senate, moving out of the way just to appease his conservative detractors doesn’t exactly fit with Boehner’s style.

If the majority of the conference is behind the speaker, conservatives could retry their plan from the last coup: block Boehner from achieving a majority and throw a speaker election to a second ballot.

There were 12 Republicans who didn’t vote for Boehner last time: Huelskamp, Justin Amash of Michigan, Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, Paul Broun of Georgia, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, Steve Pearce of New Mexico, Steve Stockman of Texas and Ted Yoho of Florida.

Should Republicans pick up seats in the House, it would boost Boehner, but it also would make the math to overthrow him more difficult. Republicans fell five votes short in 2013; a greater majority means more defectors would need to step forward to oust the speaker.

One member, granted anonymity to discuss the desire to get rid of Boehner, said he is talking with 15 or 20 members about the idea of implementing a “vetting process” for choosing a replacement candidate for speaker. CQ Roll Call raised the point that 15 or 20 members would roughly be what is necessary to throw a speaker election to a second ballot. The member’s response? ”Funny how that is.”

There’s plenty of pressure to ditch Boehner outside the Capitol. The Tea Party Patriots have been collecting more than 100,000 signatures on a “Fire the Speaker” petition, the Senate Conservatives Fund said Boehner should be replaced as recently as February, and conservative pundits all over the country have seized on the speaker’s removal as a purity issue.

But whether Boehner decides to leave, or whether his detractors decide to revolt, conservatives still face an essential question: Who will replace him?

“I think a lot of folks would like to see somebody like Jim Jordan or Jeb Hensarling run, more conservative-minded folks,” said Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.

Jordan and Hensarling, both former chairmen of the Republican Study Committee, are frequently mentioned by the agitators.

Ohio’s Jordan seems to be the preference among more right-wing members, but Hensarling, with 23 fellow Republicans from Texas, is perhaps considered more feasible.

“Texas is the large voting bloc, and they can’t be ignored,” Duncan said.

There’s a big problem with this conservative revolt scenario, though: Neither Hensarling nor Jordan seem all that interested.

Hensarling has publicly — and privately, according to multiple members — said he doesn’t want the job right now, and Jordan says the same.

“I am focused on this year,” Jordan said when CQ Roll Call asked whether he might be interested. “Not that. None of that. I’m not focused on any of that stuff.”

And if Jordan and Hensarling aren’t interested — and if Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin isn’t a palatable choice for the right-wing — it’s hard to see anyone taking the job from Boehner, or Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., should the speaker retire.

The 2013 coup failed, according to one member, because there was no one willing to step up and run against Boehner — and some members didn’t think Cantor was an improvement.

“He’s not a conservative,” Huelskamp said of Cantor. “He only became a conservative after the 2010 election.”

But, again, that’s Huelskamp’s assessment. Others say there’s no reason to question the Virginia Republican’s ideology.

Asked if Cantor is conservative enough to be speaker, Iowa Republican Steve King answered that he “wouldn’t say he’s not.”

RSC chairman Steve Scalise, R-La., almost seemed offended by the question. “Clearly Eric’s a conservative,” he said, adding that “there’s no race for speaker right now.”

Even Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said he thought Cantor was “conservative enough,” though Gohmert warned that “there’s a lot more that has to go into picking a speaker than whether they’re conservative enough.”

Gohmert specifically brought up concerns over leadership’s secret deal with Democrats to pass last month’s “doc fix.”

A number of members irritated by Boehner and Cantor mentioned that the March 26 vote — which was gaveled through the chamber in a voice vote so quickly that many Republicans later said they didn’t realize what had happened — was a turning point for discussions about new leadership.

Regular critics, like Massie, made passionate speeches to the conference on the matter, but so did less frequent leadership skeptics, like Luke Messer of Indiana.

“As you look at who might be next, it’s important that people understand that they can trust whoever our leader is, and, you know, these kinds of events can be defining,” Messer said of the “doc fix” vote.

And after he went on and on about how the vote was a major violation of trust, Messer poured on the praise for Cantor and said the incident “absolutely would not prevent me from voting for someone for speaker.”

And that seems to be where the majority of the GOP conference stands. Yes, there are members frustrated with leadership, and, yes, they’re talking.

“There’s discussions going on around this Capitol,” King said. “That has been the case for some time . . . It’s been going on throughout this entire 113th Congress.”

But has anything really changed?

“I don’t know that any tectonic plates have shifted dramatically,” King said. “Circumstances are what they are, and we’ll see where the dialogue goes.”

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