Changes strengthen John Boehner’s hand

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With Eric Cantor no longer his heir apparent, John Boehner is now more likely to stay on as Speaker.

After last week’s elections, Boehner (R-Ohio) will soon have a new leadership team and is in a stronger position to fend off a possible challenge after the midterm elections. While House Republicans are split on whether there would be another leadership shake-up in the fall, Tea Party members acknowledge they missed their best chance for change in last week’s whip and majority leader elections.

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Rumors have persisted for months that the 64-year-old Ohioan would not seek a third term as Speaker. But after Cantor’s (R-Va.) primary loss and the subsequent change of his top deputies, Boehner has assured colleagues that he will remain in place to provide the conference with stability.

“I always thought he would run again. Now I’m certain. He’s made it abundantly clear to the conference,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a staunch Boehner ally.

“Speaker Boehner is in a very strong position to be reelected Speaker. That’s his intent, and he intends to serve out certainly through the next Congress,” said Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.).

Boehner and Cantor had their differences over the years, but they and their staffs worked well together in 2014. Cantor was viewed as ready for the Speakership, having had the experience of working on the leadership team for more than a decade.

But now, Boehner no longer has an obvious successor. If he retired, it would cause further turmoil within the already unruly House Republican Conference.

“It probably strengthens the Speaker’s hand … in the sense that he clearly provides the stability and continuity,” Cole said.

Still, much can change between now and the late fall when the leaders for the next Congress will be selected. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the soon-to-be majority leader, will be watched very closely by the Tea Party, as will Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who will assume McCarthy’s job as whip.

Critics of the current leadership team believe they just missed a big opportunity.

“I think this was our best shot to change leadership, not November,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who supported Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) for majority leader over McCarthy.

Amash said the incumbent leadership would have more power to sway votes in the fall than any potential challengers.

“In November, the leadership team has the advantage of handing out committee assignments and chairmanships to win over votes. Right now, those positions are already locked in place,” Amash added.

Boustany nonetheless predicted that there will be another round of competition for leadership slots after the midterms.

“There’ll be another set of leadership elections, and I expect they will be contentious,” Boustany said. “I think there are a lot of people with ambition. ... And I think they’ll try.”

Other members doubt the conference will want to go through another round of tumultuous leadership elections.

“It could happen, but I’d be shocked,” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said of another set of leadership races. “The battle has occurred. The winners have succeeded. It just wouldn’t be fair to do that over again in such a short period of time.”

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) warned that forcing the conference to reelect new leaders five months from now would further split a conference that is already deeply fractured.

“We could have some changes in November from what we do on Thursday, but I hope not. I hope that we’ll be unified,” said Gingrey, who fell short this year in his Senate bid.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) is Boehner’s biggest threat. The Financial Services Committee chairman, who has not ruled out a bid for Speaker, would have the backing of the large Texas GOP delegation and other conservatives in the House. The Texas Republican could also attract the support of Tea Party groups and powerful conservative talk-show hosts.

Yet Boehner and his lieutenants are confident they will increase their majority in November, as President Obama’s second-term struggles continue. If that happens and the Senate flips to GOP control, Republicans would have significant political momentum and insist on unity.

Some conservatives insist they will try to launch a leadership challenge after the midterms. Other members who could run for spots include Reps. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who have both headed the conservative Republican Study Committee.

“There’s a lot of chatter,” said one member who supported Labrador for majority leader. The member, who asked not to be identified, said that “in the next few weeks, there may be a really big surprise” because a conservative candidate might step forward.

But the lawmaker noted “everybody’s kind of in a wait-and-see mode. ... Everybody [who] was running for new leadership posts, from the majority leader to the whip, made promises that things were going to be vastly different. So now, I guess we just have to see if those promises are kept.”

Cole acknowledged that some of the most conservative members of the House GOP could try to launch challenges to Boehner or others in the leadership. But he argued those are largely empty threats.

“I think that’s a lot of wishful thinking on some people’s part,” Cole said. “There’s always going to be some people. But if you can’t work with John Boehner, I really wonder who you can work with.”