Editor's note: On September 25, John Boehner announced that he would be stepping down from Congress.
It’s hard to imagine why anybody would want to be the Speaker of the House—which is perhaps the primary reason John Boehner has survived this long.
But now his tenure may be coming to an end. Rumors are swirling that Boehner’s speakership is in danger, and my sources corroborate this.
If Boehner makes even a minor misstep in the next few weeks, he will likely face a challenge—and sources indicate it would be a very close vote. In fact, right now I’d put the odds at about 50-50 that he goes down. That’s because the real goal of House conservatives right now isn’t to defund Planned Parenthood or shut down the government—their goal is to get rid of Boehner.
The rebels are going to wait to see what Boehner does regarding defunding Planned Parenthood in the next continuing resolution. He will have to make a choice between keeping the government open and pleasing House conservatives, and neither of these options are very appealing. Shutting down the government could only hurt the GOP, but Boehner’s own political survival is at stake if he appears to be capitulating to the Democrats.
Boehner is also under pressure to take a strong stand against the Iran deal. As of now, the House is expected to vote on three measures: disapproval of the deal, a statement condemning the White House for not disclosing side deals, and a bill banning the Obama administration from lifting sanctions. “We’ll use every tool at our disposal to stop, slow and delay this agreement,” Boehner said on Thursday.
Screwing up any of these votes would also invite a challenge from the more conservative wing of the chamber. The fact that these legislative gambits are unworkable is a moot point. The revolutionaries—which include the usual suspects from the fiscally conservative Freedom Caucus like Reps. Mark Meadows (who filed a motion to remove Boehner), Jim Jordan, Justin Amash, and Mick Mulvaney—seem to have decided this is the time to strike.
Of course, Boehner has already survived multiple coup attempts, but this one appears to be the most serious. Remember that back in January he came close to losing his speakership—and that was a very unorganized and sloppy effort where no real opponent emerged.
During that half-assed attempt, 25 House Republicans voted against Boehner. This time, it would take roughly 30 Republicans of the 246-member GOP conference to topple him—assuming Democrats also don’t support him (there are 188 Democrats in the House; Boehner needs a total of 218 votes to survive).
And this is where the Planned Parenthood issue becomes important. The 25 Republicans who voted against Boehner the last time came mostly from the Freedom Caucus, which is primarily focused on limiting the size of government. But the abortion issue provides an opportunity to possibly peel off some additional social conservatives who feel strongly about the issue.
At which point, the question remains—what comes next? There are several possibilities:
Option 1: Democrats join with moderate Republicans and elect a moderate Republican compromise candidate. Hard-line conservatives ignore the fact that we could end up with a Speaker to the left of Boehner, but this is an entirely plausible outcome (it routinely happens in the Texas House.) If this happens, expect someone like Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, who is respected on both sides of the aisle, to emerge. Of course, in this scenario, House conservatives would be even more marginalized.
Option 2: Boehner gets enough Democratic votes to remain speaker. This is certainly possible; in the past, Democrats have vowed to support him. This will either liberate Boehner to take on the Tea Party, or weaken him considerably. It's hard to predict what happens next.
Option 3: An acceptable and respected conservative like Jeb Hensarling or Tom Price emerges as speaker. Why these two? First, Paul Ryan doesn’t seem to want the gig, so that leaves us with only a few options for someone who fits in the Venn diagram of being enough of an outsider, well liked, and sufficiently conservative.
Hensarling has long been viewed as the guy in waiting. He led the fight against earmarks and the export-import bank. And Tom Price is the budget committee chairman who narrowly lost his bid against Cathy McMorris Rogers for chairman of the House GOP conference (Ryan and Hensarling both backed Price.)
This would clearly be the best option for conservatives but is hardly a panacea. Every Speaker will eventually disappoint the base when he predictably can’t deliver on all of their policy preferences.
Option 4: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy wins the speakership, but nothing changes. It’s possible he simply moves up the ladder. This would be an unsatisfying resolution; you cut off the beast’s head and another grows back. Furthermore, McCarthy is viewed by many as a political animal who lacks core principles.
So, despite his being next in line, McCarthy’s ascension seems somewhat unlikely. McCarthy has shown little daylight between him and Boehner. What is more, sources suspect his support is a mile wide but an inch deep. Is anyone that loyal to him?
Option 5: Donald Trump for Speaker (remember, it doesn't have to be a member of the House). I’m joking, but only a little.
The bottom line is that this is suddenly real. The fact that there have been false alarms before doesn’t mean that this time might not be the time. Conservatives have convinced themselves that the Republican leadership is the problem – that much of Obama’s liberal agenda could have been stopped if their leaders only fought as hard as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.
In the movie A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise’s character says that jury trials are always about “assigning blame.” Politics is often the same. It almost doesn’t matter if Boehner deserves this fate; someone has to pay. And since we can’t seem to make Obama pay—can’t beat him at the ballot box, are impotent when it comes to stopping his executive orders and agreements—then we will have to take it out on somebody we can punish. This is the political version of kicking the dog after a tough day at work—and it might cost Boehner his speakership.