Harder Than You Think

The Shutdown and Boehner’s Future

10.01.13 10:08 AM ET

So here we are. What happens now? Lots of harrumphing and emoting, of course, but basically, John Boehner is going to have to buckle down at some point and let a clean CR pass the House. Already 12 Republicans are on record as wanting that, if last night’s final vote is any indication. Word is a lot more want it privately.

Of course we’ll have to see how the polls go. This is not something that Democrats can just sit back and watch. For citizens who just started tuning into this, the Republicans can make a case that they’re the reasonable ones. It’s a totally dishonest case, but they can say, “We started at defunding, and we went down to delaying the whole bill, then we went down to delaying just the mandate. So we’re moving. Obama is not.”

What the citizen won’t know—unless someone bothers to point it out to her, Democrats!—is that the Republicans are totally out of bounds in the first place; that this is like having a property-line dispute with your neighbor, and the local court has already ruled in your favor, and then your neighbor comes back a year later and says he’ll settle for half the disputed property and if you don’t agree, he’ll kill your dog. Actually, that’s a pretty good analogy. I hope someone in a position of power reads this.

But let’s assume the polls post-shutdown follow the general trajectory of pre-shutdown, and the GOP gets the lion’s share of the blame. It will presumably be only a matter of time before Boehner has to let the House vote on a clean CR. It will pass, and the shutdown will end. But then the question is, will Boehner lose his job?

Surprise answer is probably not. It’s harder to depose a speaker than it would seem at first blush, which is why it’s never happened (never!). Speakers resign in shame, like Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston and Jim Wright. But deposing is hard.

Why? Because the speaker is the speaker of the House, not of the majority party. Everyone votes. Democrats too. Also, removal is a two-step process. The first vote has to be for declaring the speaker’s office empty. That would need 217 votes. Since this would be a hard-right effort, one doubts it would get any Democratic support; Democrats know that whoever would replace Boehner would be even worse. If that’s correct, it would mean that roughly 93 percent of Republicans would have to vote to declare this vacancy. Surely a sitting speaker has enough favors out there to ward that off.

And even if that did succeed, if the loonies want to replace Boehner with someone to his right, they need, again, 217 votes. It’s hard to see a hard-shell Tea Partier getting 217 votes. As Think Progress's Ian Millhiser pointed out a few days ago, it’s entirely possible that a right-wing “depose Boehner” movement could lead to an even less conservative speaker, someone capable of garnering 217 votes from non–Tea Party Republicans and moderate Democrats.

A couple more wrinkles. The Constitution does not require that the speaker be from the party that holds the House majority! It’s whoever wins 217 votes. Speaker Pelosi again? Now of course, there are only 200 Democrats, and I don’t see any 17 Republican votes for her. But a three-way circus is totally possible, with Pelosi, a Tea Party Republican, and a non–Tea Party Republican all splitting the vote and nobody getting a majority. This kind of thing has happened, notably in the run-up to the Civil War.

Wrinkle two: the speaker of the House doesn’t even have to be a member of the House! Ted Cruz could be speaker. That would actually be amazingly fun.

But no. Boehner is likely to stay in his job. Half the GOP caucus will be hopping mad at him if he does let a clean CR get to the floor. But half of 232 isn’t enough to give him the boot. However, the writing would be on the wall, and he might not last very long afterward. All the talk about him packing it in after this term would ring truer still if he lets a clean CR go through. The other alternative is that Boehner doesn’t let a clean CR through. And after all, he has caved to the right wing at every turn. What if he does that? Look for that post later today.