Speaker John A. Boehner is on a stronger footing with the House GOP rank and file than he has been in years. But when the new Congress convenes in January, that won't stop the party's anti-Boehner wing from staging another revolt.
Lawmakers and aides say Boehner has improved his position in the GOP conference since the start of 2013, when 12 Republicans surprised the Ohio Republican on the floor by refusing to vote for him as speaker. That coup attempt went nowhere, but the anti-Boehner effort in the new 114th Congress is counting on reinforcements.
At least five conservatives likely to win in November already say they’re apt to support someone else for speaker. Several current members — Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Louie Gohmert of Texas — they won’t support Boehner. And even members who support the speaker acknowledge he will face opposition.
Indiana Republican Marlin Stutzman told CQ Roll Call he will be voting for Boehner come January, but said there could be anywhere between “20 and 50” other Republicans voting against Boehner on the floor.
“It’s interesting, you know, some of the people that have approached me,” Stutzman said. “[I was] surprised that they were in that camp. It’s not your typical, traditional folks you would think.” Stutzman's office said his number is simply speculation. And even if there are enough votes to initially keep the speaker's gavel from Boehner's hand, there is no challenger yet to the man who has reigned atop the Republican Conference for nearly nine years.
“I think it’s hard to beat somebody with nobody,” Stutzman said.
Several members involved in the last effort to dethrone Boehner told CQ Roll Call that the ultimate failing of the insurrection was not presenting members with a clear alternative. And with former Majority Leader Eric Cantor gone , a Boehner successor is even less apparent.
House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin could put together a viable bid — but he's shown zero indication he will. And House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling has toyed with the idea . But his support in the conference might be overstated, and the Texas Republican seems to sense that now is not the time.
Hensarling communications director Sarah Rozier told CQ Roll Call her boss “doesn’t find speculative conversations about leadership elections to be a productive exercise," and that he "intends to support the speaker candidate that receives the support of the Republican Conference."
"And at this point he expects that person will be John Boehner,” she said.
In other words, Hensarling vs. Boehner is a long shot.
“I just don’t see it,” Rep. Tom Cole said of a Hensarling challenge. “That doesn’t mean he won’t run for speaker at some point. But again: Jeb plays by the rules. And if you’re going to run for speaker, it’s awfully late to mount that."
Cole didn’t see anyone posing a legitimate challenge — “Boehner is safer than all the gold in Fort Knox,” he said — and he thought the opposition from the congressional newcomers was exaggerated. There is a lot of pressure, he said, on new members to not “go out there on your very first vote and embarrass yourself.”
The Oklahoma Republican said there's already an effort underway from state party officials and national GOP figures to rein in the newcomers.
And that’s what many of the would-be Republican rebels seem to miss. As much chatter as there is about a coup, Boehner allies have their own plans for gumming up any plots against the speaker.
One senior aide said even if Boehner doesn't secure the votes on an initial ballot, there's no guarantee Republicans would, as opponents expect, halt the inaugural festivities and hold a special conference meeting. Conservatives have long believed that if they could deny Boehner a first-ballot victory, the conference would be thrown into chaos and a legitimate challenger would emerge.
Instead, leadership could simply hold the vote open, twist arms, maybe even hold another vote immediately after the first. Or hold many successive votes, until someone caves.
The point is: Boehner and his allies control the process. Even if his opponents could prevent him from becoming speaker on a first ballot — something that hasn't happened since 1923 — the situation is unlikely to go down as the conservative rabble-rousers envision.
There has also been discussion, first reported in May by Politico, and expanded upon recently by National Journal, of punishing anyone bucking the party line. But a senior GOP leadership aide told CQ Roll Call the idea of formally stripping rebels of their committee assignments is “not currently under consideration.”
As long as Republicans manage to navigate the lame duck, it seems Boehner's speakership isn't in any real danger.
Of course, the lame-duck session will be tricky, as Congress battles over whether — and when — to debate and vote on an Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq and Syria . Boehner is presented with choices that are certain to anger at least somebody. And Congress still has an omnibus spending bill to address by Dec. 11 .
And then there are the GOP conspiracy theorists who believe Boehner has been waiting for the lame duck to pass a comprehensive immigration bill .
“If he pushes an immigration bill, it’d probably create more opposition than anything else he could do,” Jones told CQ Roll Call on Monday.
The North Carolinian, who swears he won't support Boehner come January, has been meeting with a small group of conservatives — about seven — looking to oust the speaker. But he insists opposition to Boehner extends much deeper into the conference.
Jones said he “thought” there were other groups talking. It's just that those groups don’t appear to be talking with each other.
Whatever the case, Boehner seems intent on being speaker next Congress. His office said he “appreciates the strong support he has from members across our conference, and he’s looking forward to what we can accomplish for the American people in the years ahead.”
Short of a sudden and dramatic change of opinion, Boehner appears confident. He's already sharing plans for the 114th , talking about making a tax overhaul a priority, passing a highway bill and floating the possibility of an immigration rewrite.
He spent much of the 113th Congress repairing relationships in the conference. He emerged from the shutdown stronger in the eyes of conservatives . And even though — as Democrats are quick to point out — the House was unable to accomplish much , leaders worked through issues, produced legislation that eventually won the support of many of Boehner's biggest detractors. Case in point: the farm bill and, more recently, the border security measure .
Furthermore, much of the conference seems content with the new leadership ushered in after Cantor’s surprise defeat in June, and many think Boehner is the steady GOP hand needed at the top.
Of course, there are still elections on Nov. 4, and Republicans could be re-evaluating their leadership choices if they don’t win the Senate, or, more damningly, lose seats in the House.
But Boehner’s hold over the conference could just as well be cemented by the elections.
Should Republicans gain House seats and take majority control of the Senate, dissidents may balk at the idea of angering someone who is almost certain to be speaker again.
As Jones said, taking down a sitting speaker on the House floor would take members who are committed — "and I don’t know if they’re there or not."
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