Politics & Policy

Boehner the Survivor

An attempted rebellion against the House speaker fails, but leaves him weakened.

It was 15 minutes before the big vote for speaker on Thursday afternoon, and Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, was ready to sit back, clap, and get on with his day. As he waited, he walked to the back of the chamber to catch up with some friends. Then, out of nowhere, a conservative colleague, whom he won’t name, came up to him, tapped his shoulder, and pulled him aside. The colleague whispered that when the vote began, a few backbenchers would attempt to mount a rebellion against Speaker John Boehner. They had kept their plot quiet for weeks, the colleague explained, and he regretted the eleventh-hour mention, but they wanted his support. The colleague thought Franks would participate in the revolt, especially since the Sun Belt conservative has, at times, broken ranks with party leadership.


But Franks wasn’t interested — at all. He shook his head and said, “No, thanks.” Franks couldn’t believe that a small bloc of conservative House Republicans would haphazardly plot against the speaker, especially so close to the roll call. Franks ended the conversation and found a seat. Several other members who were approached, he says, did the same. “I’m one of the most conservative guys here and I find out about this thing 15 minutes before the vote?” Franks asks, in an interview at the Capitol. “To me, it was a ridiculous miscalculation by a sincere but inept group.”


An hour later, Boehner won back the gavel with a slender majority of 220 votes, but the entire episode was full of unseemly congressional melodrama — even before Boehner got teary during his acceptance speech. Here’s what happened: As well-dressed family members and Beltway reporters watched the slow, name-by-name count from the upstairs gallery, a dozen House conservatives tried to push the vote to a second ballot. If 17 Republicans voted against Boehner, he’d lack an absolute majority, and the clerk would recall the roll. In such a scenario, the rebels hoped, Boehner would step down.


They failed, though nine conservatives nominated a mixed list of tea-party alternatives. Three Republicans also voted present or abstained, including sophomore representatives Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina and Raul Labrador of Idaho. The Republicans who received votes included outgoing Florida congressman Allen West and former Republican Study Committee chairman Jim Jordan (who voted for Boehner). Eric Cantor, the majority leader and occasional Boehner rival, received three votes. But most of the House’s influential conservatives — Paul Ryan, Jeb Hensarling, and Tom Price — ignored the flurry of “Fire Boehner” activity and backed the speaker without hesitation.


Members say the rebellion was mostly a project of the libertarians (Justin Amash of Michigan and Walter Jones of North Carolina) and a clique within the Jordan-affiliated RSC, especially members of the class of 2010 (Mulvaney and Labrador) and their allies. It was never something that involved widespread outreach. “I only heard about it from a reporter,” says Phil Gingrey of Georgia, a longtime figure in conservative circles. “That was a real mistake,” acknowledges a House Republican staffer involved with the coup attempt. “My boss didn’t say much to anybody beforehand. They were thinking that maybe they could help Eric Cantor or someone else find a way to win.” 


Indeed, Boehner’s reelection was never in real trouble. However, during the middle of the vote, House leaders began to look a tad nervous about the unpredictable behavior of this faction of backbenchers. Aides say they knew that Boehner had enough support, but they were wary of some members who might potentially decide, on a whim, to back somebody else. The height of the tension came when the number of defections was at nine, and the number of abstentions or no-shows was at eight, meaning the magic number of 17 anti-Boehner votes was a possibility. Almost instantly, on Twitter and on the House floor, Boehner’s critics became ecstatic that a historic second ballot was on the horizon.


The plot against Boehner was promptly dashed when the conservatives who had missed the first roll emerged from the cloakroom. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a former presidential candidate, and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, two members often seen on cable TV, slowly strolled down the aisle and waited for the vote to be called again — and they both voted for Boehner. That possibility of 17 suddenly disappeared. The agitators, such as Tim Huelskamp of Kansas and Labrador, who were both sitting in the center of the House, were disappointed. Mulvaney walked off the floor. They put down their BlackBerrys and iPads, which they had been using to communicate during the vote. Their coup attempt had collapsed, and a handful of conservatives had killed it.


But there were no cheers at that moment from Boehner’s supporters, just relief. House majority leader Cantor was visibly perturbed by the display of Republican disarray as the ordeal ended with a whimper. There were eye rolls and grumbling among his group of aides. The rebels were hoping that if a second ballot were reached, Cantor would somehow break with Boehner, but they never consulted with him. It was a fantasy, and it reflected the rebels’ generally confused strategy for taking down Boehner during a public vote. When freshman Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma registered a voice vote for Cantor, the majority leader didn’t even look his way. Instead, Cantor coolly stared straight ahead.


Cantor wasn’t the only one upset with the anti-Boehner posturing. Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority whip, also seemed out of sorts, as did Paul Ryan, the former GOP vice-presidential nominee. Up in the gallery, sitting with her family, Boehner’s wife smiled tightly. Reporters leaned over the railings, trying to hear the final, surprisingly close roll call.


It wasn’t a total disaster, but the Republican mood was low; many freshmen were confused. The 113th Congress wasn’t beginning with a grand speech or unity, but with palace intrigue. Before the vote, McCarthy engaged in heated conversations with the defectors, raising his hands in exasperation. Here they were, the majority party in the House, and instead of getting ready to debate the president as a new session began, they were putting out wildfires. Boehner’s power had been unnecessarily diminished.


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.


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