For the past few weeks, Jones tells me, he had been thinking about voting against Boehner, but he wasn’t sure about how to proceed. It was only after Amash visited his office on Wednesday that Jones, an 18-year House veteran, decided to join the youthful Boehner antagonists. “Justin Amash, he was the quarterback on this one,” Jones says. During the meeting, Jones and Amash agreed that they didn’t really care about winning the gavel, but they wanted to bloody Boehner’s nose, and stick up for the libertarian wing of the House Republican caucus. Their votes weren’t even coordinated — Amash voted for Labrador, and Jones voted for David Walker, a former comptroller general.
Yet the suspense defined the day. It sent a signal to Boehner that the next two years will certainly be tumultuous as he tries to herd his startlingly fractured conference. It also revealed cracks within the right flank. Many conservatives, such as Franks, were furious with the flailing, disorganized rebellion. Others, such as Representative Louis Gohmert of Texas, were pleased to see Boehner sweat, if only briefly. “There is a time to think and there is a time to fight, but I just don’t think that today was the time to fight,” says Representative Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, who supported Boehner. Westmoreland understands why some Republicans wanted to raise hell in front of the C-SPAN cameras, but he fears the fight will exacerbate divisions. “Most folks who were watching today will forget this stuff in a few weeks,” predicts a moderate House Republican, who requested anonymity. “But all of this knife fighting, it cripples Boehner. I’m not sure he can even manage this group. If they did this on the floor, imagine what’s coming next.”
The timing was horrible for Boehner. This scramble for 220 votes came just a few days after Cantor, McCarthy, and 149 other House Republicans rebelled against Boehner’s decision to bring the Senate’s fiscal-cliff legislation to the House floor. It passed thanks only to Democratic support. The vote also came one day after Boehner clashed with New Jersey and New York Republicans about relief funds for victims of Hurricane Sandy. One senior Republican, Peter King of New York, had even threatened to leave the GOP because of Boehner’s decision to pull the Sandy bill from the floor. Boehner eventually reconciled with King and the other northeastern lawmakers, but the headlines stung, as did brutal remarks by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who berated Boehner’s leadership.
The tone of Boehner’s speech after the melee reflected the afternoon angst. Having finally won back the office, he held the oversized speaker’s gavel for a moment, admired it, and lifted it in appreciation. “Public service was never meant to be an easy living,” Boehner said, as he worked to hold back his emotions. He then took a thinly veiled shot at the House hotshots and fiery rebels: “If you come here to see your name in lights or to pass off political victory as accomplishment, you have come to the wrong place. The door is right behind you.” But it was the ending of the brief speech that stuck with many members, even the rebellion’s leaders. After sharing his love for the House and welcoming the newcomers, Boehner paused for a second, clasped his hands, and dipped his head. He appeared both moved by the moment, and by the challenges that lay ahead.
“So help us God,” Boehner said. He then wiped away a tear.
Boehner now moves toward the debt-ceiling showdown and other fiscal debates unsure of whether he can corral his conference on any vote at any time. They didn’t support him on Plan B, his fiscal-cliff fix; they didn’t support him on the Senate bill; they argued with him about Sandy dollars; and during his reelection day some tried to end his speakership. “Boehner is on the hot seat,” Gingrey says, and even Boehner’s confidants are not sure how much he has been hobbled by the internecine warfare. “Can we resolve our differences, such as they are, and still get 218 votes on the important issues?” Gingrey wonders.
But don’t count Boehner out. He’s a tougher political operator than most give him credit for. He started his career as a soldier in Newt Gingrich’s army. He has been through many leadership battles in the past two decades. What happened on Thursday was painful, but it was hardly an overthrow. This gruff, 63-year-old man, who grew up mopping floors at his family’s bar in southern Ohio, knows how to build friendships and keep them. He spends hours each evening conversing with the House’s old bulls, usually with a cigarette and a glass of Merlot. Yes, his power is shrinking, but it’ll take more than a band of critics to oust him.
You can also bet Boehner will remember those who plotted against him, although it’s unclear, for now, whether he will punish the dozen. When he emerged from the back of the House following the final tally of votes, he went straight toward Labrador and Paul Broun of Georgia, who voted for Allen West. Those two rebels were the first two hands he shook. He looked them straight in the eye, nodded, and then moved on.
Boehner’s face said it all: That’s Speaker John Boehner to you.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.