By Matt Fuller, CQ Roll Call
WASHINGTON — Speaker John A. Boehner is on a stronger footing with the House Republican 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 2013 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 — openly admit they won’t support Boehner. And even members who support the speaker acknowledge that he will face opposition.
Indiana Republican Marlin Stutzman said he will vote for Boehner come January, but that there could be 20 to 50 Republicans voting against Boehner.
“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 said the ultimate failing of the insurrection was not presenting members with a clear alternative. And with former Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) gone, a Boehner successor is even less apparent.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin could put together a viable candidacy, but has shown no indication that he will. And House Financial Services Committee 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’s communications director, Sarah Rozier, said 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 (R-OK) 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”– 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.”
Cole said there’s already an effort underway from state party officials and national Republican 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 that 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, and 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 of punishing anyone bucking the party line, first reported in May by Politico, and expanded upon recently by National Journal. But a senior Republican leadership aide said the idea of stripping rebels of their committee assignments is “not currently under consideration.”
As long as Republicans manage to navigate the lame duck session, it seems Boehner’s speakership isn’t in any real danger.
Of course, the session will be tricky, as Congress battles over whether — and when — to debate and vote on authorizing 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 Republican conspiracy theorists who believe Boehner has been waiting for the lame duck session 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 said.
Jones, 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 that 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.
Short of a sudden and dramatic change of opinion, Boehner appears confident. He’s already sharing plans for the 114th Congress, talking about making a tax overhaul a priority, a highway bill and the possibility of an immigration rewrite.
He spent much of the 113th Congress repairing relationships in the party 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 and produced legislation that eventually won the support of many of Boehner’s biggest detractors, such as 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 Republican hand needed at the top.
Of course, there are still elections on Nov. 4. And Republicans could re-evaluate 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.”
AFP Photo/Mark Wilson