Failed coup effort against Boehner highlights House GOP divisions

A group of dissident Republicans failed on Thursday to push Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) to a second ballot in his election as Speaker and potentially replace him as leader of the House.

Twelve House Republicans broke from Boehner in a tense public roll-call vote, either by voting for someone else or deliberately not voting at all — five short of what would have been needed to force a second ballot.

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The defections came at a tumultuous moment for Boehner, who faced sharp criticism from some within his conference and conservatives outside Congress both for his handling of the final "fiscal cliff" legislation and for scrapping a vote on a Hurricane Sandy relief bill.

One of the 12 Republican defectors, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), said it was Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican just elected to his second term, who tried in recent days to organize what amounted to an attempted coup. Amash and Jones were among the four Republicans kicked off their committees by GOP leaders after the November elections.

At one point, both Jones and Amash said, the group had amassed enough Republicans to deny Boehner the gavel on the first ballot. Boehner ended up receiving 220 votes out of 426 votes cast on the floor, or 51.6 percent. The Speaker must receive a clear majority of votes cast, meaning he needed at least 214.

“We thought we had 20,” Jones said. “In fairness to those, two or three of those just decided they couldn’t go through with it.”

Jones said Amash came to see him on Tuesday and was holding one-on-one talks with other members to persuade them to defect. “Justin deserves a lot of credit,” Jones said.

Other conservatives who supported Boehner denounced the coup attempt as misguided and poorly organized.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) told reporters that a member — whom he would not name — came up to him on the House floor about 15 minutes before the vote and said “there might be some effort to dissent.”

“I said that’s exactly what the Democrats would like to see us do,” Franks said he told the member.

Asked by a reporter if the effort to depose Boehner was “chaotic and disorganized,” Franks replied: “I think that’s being charitable.”

Another conservative who voted for Boehner, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), said: “There’s a time for everything, and I didn’t feel like now was the time.”

The vote came less than two full days after Boehner lost nearly two-thirds of his conference in the climactic fiscal-cliff vote on a Senate compromise.

“I think the Senate bill passing the other night galvanized many of us who were frustrated,” Jones said.

Amash at first would not say whether he had led the effort when asked by a reporter, but later denied it was him.

He told reporters that Jones may have viewed the situation that way but that “a lot of people were upset and they came together. Independently people were upset and they came together.”

He added, "it's not because one person goes to someone else and says, ‘hey will you join us?’ ”

Amash wouldn't say whether the dissenters held a meeting to discuss the matter prior to the vote.

“There were many of us who discussed our positions on this and wouldn't say who was in charge, but there were a number of us,” Amash said.

“The Speaker ... did not have the support of 218 people in the conference,” he added. “He has a few months to show people things have changed and if not, we are back to square one.

“We have to stand for something and we have to present a clear message to the American people and that hasn't happened,” he said.

Rep.Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), another lawmaker removed from this committee assignment, accused the party leadership of intimidating members into backing Boehner in the last few days, threatening to strip them of committee assignments and withhold financial support for their campaigns.

He refused to cite specific names and examples.

“I know one gentleman was called, a freshman who was called, and said 'you know what, we know we've announced your assignment to committee x, it’s probably gone if you vote your conscience here,” charged Huelskamp, who has frequently criticized Boehner to the press since losing his committee seat.

The chief Republican vote-counter, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), adamantly denied any such tactics, calling the allegations “crazy.”

“That's not true in any state or form at all,” he told The Hill. Pressed to answer the allegation that leaders threatened to take an announced committee assignment away from a freshman, an emphatic McCarthy stated, “NO! N-O. No!”

In the run-up to the vote, McCarthy could be seen in intense conversations on the floor with conservative members, including Rep. Scott Garrett (N.J.) and Rep. Stephen Fincher (Tenn.). Garrett stood with his arms crossed for the entire conversation and for a minute afterward. He did not vote when his name was first called, casting his support for Boehner only after the full House was called and the names of members who did not vote the first time were repeated. Fincher voted for Boehner when his name was called.

A spokeswoman for McCarthy refused to characterize his conversations with members on the floor.

Republican leadership aides said Boehner was aware there was an effort to oppose him, and they said the result was expected. “There were no surprises,” one aide said.

After it was all through, Boehner played it cool.

Entering the chamber after the vote, Boehner shook hands with two opponents, Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who voted for former Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), and Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) who abstained without bothering to leave the chamber.

Upon taking the gavel, he wiped away tears and delivered an emotional speech to the House in which he told members they were not in Congress simply to achieve “political victory.”

“Public service was never meant to be an easy living. Extraordinary challenges demand extraordinary leadership,” Boehner said. “So if you have come here to see your name in lights or to pass off political victory as accomplishment, you have come to the wrong place. The door is behind you.”

Jones, Amash and Huelskamp have all three blasted the decision to remove them from their panels, and Jones complained on Thursday that he was never called by the Speaker about the move.

The fourth Republican punished by leaders, Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), voted for Boehner. He had what appeared to be a friendly conversation with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) before the vote.

Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), another defector, said he voted for Cantor instead of Boehner because of the fiscal-cliff deal.

“Congressman Pearce is looking for a new direction for the Republican-led House, and a new voice in future negotiations,” spokesman Eric Layer said.

Boehner voted for the fiscal-cliff deal, while Cantor opposed it.

Cantor sat stone-faced and shook his head each of the three times Republicans voted for him for Speaker.

Cantor spokesman Doug Heye said he did not encourage members to vote for him and made clear both publicly and privately that he was backing Boehner.