For months, several clusters of conservative lawmakers have been secretly huddling inside and outside the Capitol, plotting to oust John BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE from the Speaker’s office when House Republicans regroup after the November elections.
The strategy — for now — seems disorganized and fluid: Find a way to push the Speaker’s race to a second ballot, create turmoil in the conference, portray Boehner as highly vulnerable and offer up an alternative.
Boehner is “back on top,” The Wall Street Journal declared.
Yet behind all the chest-thumping, the picture is less rosy for the 64-year-old Ohio Republican.
A number of conservative lawmakers, both in interviews on the record and on background, described enormous frustration with Boehner and his top lieutenants for taking too safe a political route ahead of the 2014 elections.
“In tough times, it doesn’t mean you play timid, it means to play bold, and I don’t see that. And you know what? Time’s up,” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who vowed to vote against Boehner, told The Hill in an interview. “I’m tired of the status quo of what’s going on in Washington, D.C. America’s tired, America’s angry and they’re scared, because they don’t have leaders in Washington, D.C.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) was more succinct: “I’ll give him every bit as much support as I did last time.”
Gohmert in 2013 was one of a dozen Republicans who didn’t support Boehner for Speaker. Ten of them will return to the next Congress and have a vote on Boehner’s future.
Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), also said he’ll again vote against Boehner, even though he admitted it could be a suicide mission.
A handful of other conservative rabble-rousers, including Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, declined to say whether they would vote to give Boehner a third two-year term.
“When he makes an announcement on what his career is, I’ll start to contemplate that, but I haven’t really given it any thought in any kind of broader discussion,” said King.
Boehner has privately called King an “asshole” for comparing young illegal immigrants to drug mules.
“I’ll just say let’s just see how this plays out,” said King, who backed Boehner for Speaker in 2013.
King told The Hill that “there have been a number of gatherings in the Capitol building and outside the Capitol building” focused on Boehner’s leadership, but he declined to provide more specifics about the meetings or offer up any names of potential challengers.
Jones, a second-generation congressman from coastal North Carolina, said he belongs to one of the groups holding anti-Boehner meetings. His group, made up of six to seven lawmakers, meets every few weeks in one of the members’ congressional offices.
“There’s a group of members who’d like to see a change in the leadership, and we believe sincerely there needs to be a new direction for the House,” Jones said in an interview just off the House floor. “If you’re gonna have a new direction, it starts at the top.”
That Jones is seeking to oust Boehner from power is no surprise. He’s been one of the Ohio Republican’s most vocal critics and doesn’t have much to lose by publicly campaigning against him. In late 2012, Boehner booted Jones and three other Tea Party-backed lawmakers from top financial committees for repeatedly bucking leadership (though Jones still serves on the Armed Services panel).
The informal anti-Boehner meetings, Jones said, are held randomly and without much notice: his administrative assistant will often receive an invitation by email with the time and place. One such meeting took place last week while Congress was wrapping up work on a stopgap spending bill and Syria legislation.
In fact, Jones acknowledged he didn’t even know who the members of the other groups were, though he said that was by design to avoid being targeted by the Speaker and his allies. At some point, however, these Boehner foes will have to step forward and “show they will stick together on a vote,” Jones said. Then, one of them can be offered up as a candidate.
Jones declined to identify any of the other members in his anti-Boehner group, but he said it was not the same as the group of House conservatives who frequently huddle with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the Tea Party favorite and prospective 2016 presidential hopeful.
In a brief interview, Cruz denied that he was spearheading one of the groups seeking to oust the Speaker. “Leadership questions are for the House to decide,” the senator said.
As is standard, House Republicans will vote twice to elect the Speaker and their other leaders for the new Congress: once on a secret ballot during a closed-door conference meeting after the Nov. 4 elections and then again in January in a public vote on the House floor — the first vote of the 114th Congress.
No one has publicly stepped forward to take on the sitting Speaker. Former Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is out of the picture after his sudden and spectacular defeat in his June GOP primary. And potential conservative rivals like Reps. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) or Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) haven’t been making any moves behind the scenes for the Speaker’s gavel.
In the private election slated for the week of Nov. 10, Boehner will need 50 percent of the votes plus one to win what many expect to be his final term as Speaker. If the GOP picks up between five and eight seats this fall, that would bring its majority to roughly 240 seats. That means two or more other Boehner challengers would need to capture more than 120 backers combined to push the race to a second ballot and throw the process into chaos — a scenario most observers see as implausible.
A more likely scenario would come during the public roll call, just as it did during the coup attempt against Boehner in January 2013. About 20 Boehner defectors would need to hold the line, depriving him of the 218-vote simple majority he needs to win another two years as Speaker. Democrats would almost certainly withhold their votes for Boehner if they saw the GOP leader foundering.
“You’ve got to have 20 to 25 committed people that are willing to cut their wrist,” Jones explained, “and if you’re not willing to cut your wrist, you’re not really committed.”
If Boehner doesn’t win on the first roll call, lawmakers keep voting until someone wins a simple majority of the 435-member House. And even after several rounds of votes, Boehner still could prevail over potential challengers.
Boehner’s office has expressed confidence he will be the Speaker in the 114th Congress.
“The Speaker is gratified by the strong support he has from members across our conference, and he’s looking forward to what we can accomplish for the country in the years ahead,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said Tuesday in response to questions from The Hill about efforts to depose the Speaker.
But Boehner will face a conference that is expected to be even more conservative than the one he’s led for the past four years.
Ten of the 12 Republicans who didn’t back Boehner in the public floor vote early last year are cruising to reelection. And a number of Republicans running to replace longtime retiring members in red districts have publicly stated they won’t back Boehner for Speaker.
Political newcomer Gary Palmer, who is expected to replace Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), told Bloomberg that Boehner’s “lost his legitimacy to lead.” Former state Sen. Barry Loudermilk, who will succeed Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), “will not support Boehner as speaker,” his spokesman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And Wisconsin state Sen. Glenn Grothman, the nominee to replace longtime Rep. Tom Petri, told Reuters voters want “conservative candidates who want to stand up to Republican leadership. And that’s me.”
Grothman's campaign on Wednesday clarified that he is undecided about whether to support Boehner.
Even as Boehner headlined a Monday fundraiser for John Katko in Syracuse, N.Y., the candidate told reporters he was still evaluating the Speaker and didn’t know if he would back him if he wins his race against Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.).
But most Republicans believe Boehner is in a much stronger position today than he was during the coup attempt two years ago, or during the government shutdown last year led by Cruz.
Boehner’s reshuffled leadership team, with California’s Kevin McCarthy replacing Cantor as majority leader and Louisiana’s Steve Scalise succeeding McCarthy as majority whip, is already notching victories and getting kudos from one-time conservative foes including Labrador and Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.).
Just before the August recess, House Republicans pushed through a Tea Party-backed bill that would block expansion of President Obama’s 2012 executive action protecting young immigrants from deportation. And conservatives lauded Boehner for allowing a vigorous debate in GOP conference meetings this month before holding a vote on giving Obama the authority to train and arm Syrian rebels who are waging war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Still, Labrador, who came up short in his challenge to McCarthy for the majority leader job, hinted that a Boehner challenger could step up if Republicans fail to win control of the Senate in November.
“I don’t see much of a challenge [to Boehner] mounting and I suspect that there won’t be a challenge,” Labrador said at an event last week sponsored by the Heritage Foundation. “However, if we don’t take the Senate, I think there might be rumblings as to maybe we need a new direction as a Republican Party.”
Mulvaney, who like Labrador intentionally withheld his support for Boehner during the public floor vote last time, said he has not taken part in any of the anti-Boehner meetings and that he “absolutely” plans to back Boehner for another term.
He agrees with Labrador that the newly formed leadership team has righted the ship and started to listen to conservatives in the conference. As for other disgruntled Republicans still angling to cause trouble, Mulvaney said he hopes any leadership fight takes place behind closed doors, out of the media spotlight.
“I’m not interested in having some type of display on the floor like I was involved with two years ago,” Mulvaney said in a phone interview. “I will be supporting whoever the Republican conference nominates as Speaker of the House, and right now I fully expect it to be John Boehner.
“I’m done airing our dirty laundry in public,” he said.
Other conservatives, too, say they’re sticking with Boehner, who’s proven time and again he knows how to survive in often-perilous political waters.
“Given the impossible equation this man has had to navigate, he has a done a good job,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) told The Hill.
“I just think he’s dealing with an unfriendly media, a White House that can’t keep it’s word on anything,” Franks added, “and in this caucus he’s being divided again — he’s got conservatives pulling on him, moderates pulling on him in every direction.”
“I just don’t see how the man survives, but he has.”
Eliza Schmitt contributed.
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