Mario Cuomo's funeral may have saved John Boehner’s political life Tuesday.
Boehner managed to be re-elected Speaker of the House by a margin of 216-164 over Nancy Pelosi with 24 Republicans voting for other candidates and freshman Brian Babin of Texas voting present. The key to the Speaker’s success may have been that 13 New York Democrats were out of town on the same day as the funeral of Cuomo, the former three-term governor of New York who died on New Year’s Day.
With fewer members of Congress voting in the race for Speaker, it meant that Boehner faced a lower threshold for a majority and could weather more defections. Normally, 434 members (minus Michael Grimm who resigned) would vote for Speaker. However, only 408 were present today. Therefore, Boehner needed just 205 votes to win. This was nine fewer than what he needed just two years ago when 426 members of the House voted.
On the eve of the vote, Republican rebels were in surprisingly high sprits, Tom Massie of Kentucky told The Daily Beast only a few minutes before the vote that they had 17 Republicans firmly committed to voting against Boehner and felt that up to 50 members of the GOP caucus to oppose the incumbent Speaker.
The anti-Boehner Republicans spread their votes out among a number of candidates, three of whom, Dan Webster, Ted Yoho, and Louie Gohmert were nominated from the floor. Of the three nominated, Webster did the best, receiving 12 votes, Gohmert and Yoho received three and two votes, respectively. However, other Republican dissenters backed a scattering of other candidates stretching from moderate Chris Gibson of upstate New York who backed Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to Curt Clawson of Florida who supported Senator Rand Paul in a vote that drew bemused giggles from both sides of the aisle.
Republicans weren’t the only ones to break ranks. Four Democrats also did not vote for Pelosi as their party’s nominee for Speaker as well.
The number of dissenters though is unprecedented in the modern era. Not since 1923, when nine ballots were required to elect a Speaker had so many members voted against their party’s nominee for the office. It’s a sign that Boehner is still facing a deeply fractured caucus in the aftermath of passing the controversial Cromnibus bill in December and may have as much difficulty with conservatives in his caucus this Congress as he did in the past four years.
Boehner was helped out by the fact that several freshman Republicans who indicated that they would oppose the incumbent Speaker while running for Congress changed their minds. Typical of these members was Mark Walker from a deep red district in North Carolina who explained his vote by criticizing the alternatives.
"[W]ith respect to the other candidates for Speaker, I do not believe they possess the record of leadership and accomplishment necessary to be Speaker of the House. I cannot just vote for the most conservative candidate when considering a position that is this important to the country," he said.
Moderate Republican Scott Rigell of Virginia, who voted against Boehner, echoed Walker's reasoning in part when it came to two of the alternatives to Boehner.
"I'm just convinced there is more potential out here for us to reform this institution," Rigell said, adding he thought Boehner was a "good man." Asked why he chose to vote for Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, the former speaker of the Florida House, he said neither Gohmert nor Yoho "had the temperament to be Speaker."
Walter Jones of North Carolina, who also voted for Webster, said the Florida Republican met with a small group of members in the run up to the vote and told them "if I can help improve the system, I will consider it."
"I'm just grateful that we came as close as we did. We wanted to send the message [that] the American people are very upset by this leadership." He added, "I have not had this many phone calls since the shutdown of the government, truthfully."
The rebels though seemed somewhat chastened by the result despite more than doubling the anti-Boehner votes from two years ago. Yoho told reporters after the results were announced that Boehner is “the Speaker of the House and I look forward to following his lead.”
In contrast, Boehner's leadership team filed into his ceremonial office and greeted the teary newly-elected Speaker with hugs.
"That was crazy," Lynn Jenkins of Kansas muttered to another member as she walked to greet Boehner.
As he and his team left the room to re-enter the House Chamber, Boehner gave a thumbs-up sign to a small group of reporters waiting outside.