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Roll Call

Boehner Coup Attempt Larger Than First Thought

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo

A concerted effort to unseat Speaker John A. Boehner was under way the day of his re-election to the position, but participants called it off 30 minutes before the House floor vote, CQ Roll Call has learned.

A group of disaffected conservatives had agreed to vote against the Ohio lawmaker if they could get at least 25 members to join the effort. But one member, whose identity could not be verified, rescinded his or her participation the morning of the vote, leaving the group one person short of its self-imposed 25-member threshold. Only 17 votes against Boehner were required to force a second ballot, but the group wanted to have insurance.

Even with 24 members, the group would easily have been able to force a second ballot round, but the effort was aborted in frenetic discussions on the House floor.

“There was an effort to get to a particular number,” said one Republican member who voted for Boehner but was familiar with the effort to oust him.

Republican Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina and Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho played key roles in organizing the plot. But participants describe its origin as organic and not led by any particular member, despite the suggestion by at least one House Republican that Amash was the ringleader.

One member who participated in the effort described it as the work of small groups of Republican lawmakers who concluded independently that new leadership was needed in the speaker’s office. After learning of their agreement on the subject through discussions on the House floor during the week or two before Thursday’s vote, they decided to band together in an attempt to assemble a group of 25 members committed to opposing Boehner.

Boehner’s opponents believed forcing a second-round ballot for speaker would lead to a chaotic and unpredictable GOP Conference meeting in which they hoped potential successors to Boehner would step forward.

However, two senior Republicans who the plotters hoped would step forward to lead the coup had already rebuffed their entreaties, sources said, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas saying no the unknown members of the group who approached them. The group’s plan had been to vote for a collection of names rather than a single person to avoid creating the impression that any of those they supported had helped organize the coup attempt.

After the plot was called off, those who had joined it were released and given the approval to vote however they liked, and roughly half of the group abstained or voted against Boehner. Each abstention actually lowered the amount of votes Boehner needed to win re-election, as winning the speakership requires garnering only a majority of those who voted, as opposed to a majority of sitting House members.

Boehner’s re-election vote came two weeks after he pulled his “plan B” fiscal cliff legislation in an embarrassing defeat and two days after the House passed the final fiscal cliff deal with mostly Democratic votes — and without the support of either Cantor or House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

The night of the vote on the fiscal cliff deal, which occurred New Year’s Day, Boehner stopped a vote on Hurricane Sandy aid in part because of fear about the “insurrection” forming against him, former Rep. Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio told The Atlantic.

The called-off plot suggests Boehner’s opponents were more organized than previously thought, however loosely. Notably, the attempt was plotted independently from, and without the knowledge of, a public effort led by a young conservative activist and former GOP Rep. Jeff Landry, which created buzz about Boehner’s possible ouster in conservative media. Landry lost re-election to Boehner ally Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-La., in a member-vs.-member contest brought about by redistricting.

Breitbart.com covered the Landry effort extensively, and one Republican member who participated in the larger coup attempt said Breitbart’s coverage of the smaller push actually helped keep their effort hidden because it suggested to Boehner and his allies that talk of a coup wasn’t serious. Members of the larger coup plot deliberately excluded top aides from deliberations to enhance secrecy and to protect them from recrimination.

The fact that the larger plot failed explains why some members who engaged in heated discussions about the matter on the House floor ultimately voted for Boehner.

For example, Tennessee Rep. Stephen Fincher had what he conceded was a “shouting match” with McCarthy on the floor minutes before the vote. Other sources confirmed the heated discussion was about the vote for speaker. But Fincher voted for Boehner. “A coup was not accomplished. The speaker is still the speaker,” Fincher said Saturday.

Deliberations about the coup attempt split the right flank of the GOP conference, and even many lawmakers with grave reservations about Boehner’s leadership opted against joining the effort.

Opponents to the coup attempt said the effort was doomed without a leader who could plausibly assume the speaker’s gavel. Some lawmakers also objected to the method of the challenge to Boehner. Rather than present concerns to fellow lawmakers in a closed-door conference meeting, they complained, members tried to unseat Boehner on live television.

In the minutes before the vote, Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland engaged in vigorous conversations with some of the members of the coup attempt who went on to vote against Boehner.

“What I was trying to explain to them [was], if you don’t have a complete plan ... there are other ways to do things. You’ve got to do it the smart way,” Westmoreland said.

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