Speaker John Boehner may have presided over the most embarrassing 24 hours in recent GOP history when he failed to bring his caucus along to support his fiscal cliff negotiations, but that doesn’t mean he will be seriously challenged for the speakership when Congress reconvenes on January 3, 2013.
John Boehner’s grip on the Speaker’s gavel appears to be secure, despite a personally embarrassing and politically damaging defeat Thursday at the hands of his fellow Republicans.
The House Republican conference refused to deliver the votes to pass the Ohio lawmaker’s “Plan B” tax bill to prevent much of the fiscal cliff, sapping the Speaker of leverage in the climactic days of his year-end negotiations with President Obama and Democratic leaders.
But conservative critics of Boehner’s approach said in the aftermath of the defeat there had been no discussion of ousting the Speaker, and they fully expected him to be reelected by the House during a formal floor vote on Jan. 3 at the opening of the 113th Congress.
“This was not a vote of no confidence in the Speaker,” freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), an opponent of Boehner’s Plan B legislation, said in an interview. “This was a legislative defeat, not a personal defeat.”
Another vocal critic of the Speaker’s proposal, Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), said: “He is my Speaker, and I support him.”
Asked if the conference was angry at Boehner, Fleming replied, “No, the frustration is with President Obama.”
Boehner has watched bills fail on the floor several times during his two-year tenure, but none of those losses appeared to be as wrenching for the Speaker as what happened on Thursday night. After leaders assured reporters they had the votes throughout the day, Boehner abruptly canceled the vote shortly before 8 p.m. and led his members in an emotional prayer before dismissing them from the Capitol.
A source close to the leadership operation said that Boehner is “still in good standing with the members,” and that he has not been calling lawmakers to ensure their support for him on Jan. 3.
Is Boehner whistling past the graveyard? There are some scenarios that might lead to his ouster either voluntarily or otherwise:
A successful strategy to oust Boehner would not require a challenger to pick up the support of a majority of GOP members. Rather, it would take less than half of the number of Thursday night’s 35 or more holdouts to block Boehner from keeping the speaker’s gavel.
That’s because under House rules, a speaker must be elected with an “absolute majority” of all the House member votes cast, Republican and Democrat. That means the winner — who is not required to even be a member of Congress — must take at least 50 percent, plus one vote.
For instance, if all 233 Republicans and 200 Democrats who will start out in the 113th Congress actually show up to vote for speaker, just 17 Republican defections from Boehner to anyone else could jeopardize his reelection by denying him the 217-vote absolute majority. And if no candidate receives the requisite majority, the roll call is repeated until a speaker is elected.
An example of a worst-case scenario occurred at the start of the 34th Congress in 1855, when no candidate for speaker could secure a majority for 133 ballots. For Boehner, though, even just being forced to a second ballot might be embarrassing enough as a de facto “no confidence” vote that he would decide to step aside for another House Republican name to be considered.
Such a conspiracy, however, would require two key ingredients.
One is finding 17 House Republicans, or more, willing to publicly vote for someone other than Boehner on an initial ballot and even later ones, and staying unified in that effort —all the while knowing that retribution from Boehner will likely await them if they fail.
Then, if Boehner does eventually give up, an alternative candidate from among House Republicans must be able to rally an absolute majority of votes. There are rumors, which could not be substantiated in interviews with several House Republicans, of colleagues quietly trying to line up support for themselves as speaker if Boehner runs into trouble.
There may be some attempt at a symbolic vote of “present” by some members. Boehner would still receive a majority of votes cast and thus win re-election, but it might prove embarrassing if enough conservatives sought to punish the speaker for his purge of several members who angered the leadership.
In an atmosphere where competence and achievement were rewarded while incompetence and failure were punished, Boehner wouldn’t have a chance. But this is the GOP caucus and rather than performance, it’s how much power you wield that matters most.