Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio beat back a last-minute and loosely organized insurrection against his leadership Thursday, securing the votes to retain the gavel but not without the signature intraparty drama of the 112th Congress.
The speaker remains the de facto face of the Republican Party for the next two years, but there is no sign that the rancor of the past two is behind him, and there is ample evidence that he is in for an even rougher road ahead.
Nine Republicans voted for another candidate for speaker, including three who named Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. Cantor himself voted for Boehner and shook his head with displeasure when he was nominated. The rest of the leadership team sat beside him projecting the same irritation throughout the roll call, and beforehand, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California could be seen having heated conversations with a few members.
“There’s just some relationship issues,” said Republican Policy Committee Chairman James Lankford of Oklahoma, who said he will go to work trying to reach out to the disaffected members.
Most of the defections were familiar faces. Reps. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas and Justin Amash of Michigan, who last month were removed from plum committees for their rebelliousness, led the charge, with the former voting for Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and the latter voting for Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho. Jordan voted for Boehner; Labrador withheld his vote.
“It was a vote of no confidence in the leadership of the speaker,” Huelskamp said. “My constituents were very opposed to the current leadership of the House. They are very upset about it.”
Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, another member of the purged class, said Amash met individually with lawmakers “that were disillusioned by what is happened in the last few months” in a kind of spoke-and-wheel conspiracy in which participants only communicated with the Michigan lawmaker.
“Justin deserves a lot of credit, it was really one-on-one and whom else was involved, I don’t know,” said Jones, who voted for former U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker.
But as the vote drew near, the group began reaching out to a larger number of would-be defectors, aiming for 17 to 20 votes against Boehner, enough to deny him the necessary majority to force a second round of voting.
Fifteen minutes before the vote, Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, who has been known to vote against leadership’s priorities, said a member other than Amash approached him and asked, “Did you know what’s happening?”
Franks did not, he said, and quickly rejected the appeal to join in. This was a “ridiculous miscalculation on the part of sincere but completely inept” members “to do something I think was totally unjustified,” Franks said.
Other members also dismissed the threat. “I was here when there was a credible challenge to [then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.,] and I don’t think this was a credible challenge. It was more disjointed people,” Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said.
But Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, an influential conservative member who vied for but lost a seat in leadership, said the dissent “speaks to a concern and frustration about where we are in this country and the imperative of addressing the serious issues that we’ve got.”
Price recently said in a radio interview that the GOP leadership team needed more “red state” representation and explained Thursday, “If you look at the Republican Conference, it’s about two-thirds/one-third, conservative/moderate, and that percent isn’t reflected, necessarily, either in the leadership table or the steering committee.”
Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico voted for Cantor, as did freshman Reps. Ted Yoho of Florida and Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma. Reps. Louie Gohmert of Texas and Paul Broun of Georgia voted for former Rep. Allen B. West, R-Fla., and Reps. Steve Stockman of Texas and Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina abstained.
Huelskamp suggested that the members who voted no are ready to be punished if leadership sees fit and said leadership had engaged in intimidation leading up to the vote. McCarthy denied that. “What? That is crazy! That’s not true in any state or form at all,” he said.
As interesting as the vote was, however, the lasting historical implications are limited given the history of the speakership. Brookings Institution fellow Sarah Binder said there was no candidate to coalesce around, and really no issue large enough to wrench the conference in half.
“It’s a ripple, sort of a footnote,” she said. “I would see this really as the symptom of the disease, not the cause of the disease. It’s emblematic of the difficulties Boehner has to deal with in his conference.”