WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 01: Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (C) walks through Statuary Hall before entering the House Chamber to oversee a vote on 'fiscal cliff' legislation during a rare New Year's Day session January 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. Credit: Getty Images
Following the debacle that was the failure of Plan B in the Republican-controlled House, to say nothing of the fact that the majority of votes for the fiscal cliff deal came from Democrats, House Speaker John Boehner has come in for some rather harsh criticism. Some have even openly spoken about mounting a leadership challenge against Boehner, and with the vote today that could do just that, such challenges are quite arguably a cause for concern for Boehner himself.
But will they go anywhere? Here, the question becomes more fuzzy. Without a major candidate willing to challenge Boehner and openly campaign for the post, it may well be that the Speaker could hang on, especially considering that a Republican caucus that is divided among several no hopers as an alternative to Boehner could very easily lead to Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. In fact, all it takes is 34 votes for someone other than Boehner by Republicans for Pelosi to reclaim the gavel. Needless to say, this is an outcome that no Republicans want.
There is, of course, one immediate default candidate to replace Boehner, that being House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Cantor, who very publicly broke with Boehner on yesterday's fiscal cliff deal, and has been known to argue more aggressively for a conservative approach than Boehner in White House negotiations, could probably oust Boehner in a straight leadership election with as little as 80% of the Republican votes against the fiscal cliff deal behind him. Indeed, according to the Guardian, Cantor is the only credible alternative to Boehner:
Enter Eric Cantor. In closed-door meetings of the House Republican conference, he expressed his opposition to the Senate bill before Boehner had taken a stand. He expressed the sense of most Republicans that it raised taxes without getting any meaningful spending cuts in return, that it added to the deficit, and that it created the precedent that any cuts must be paired with tax hikes.[...]
Cantor had tried to establish himself as the right flank of the debt ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011, famously irritating the president. But many conservatives regarded this as ambition talking more than principle. When the majority leader said out loud what most Republicans were thinking about the fiscal cliff bill, however, there was admiration.[...]
Could Cantor make a move? The conditions are there, but an exhausted Republican caucus may ultimately flinch from a change at such an uncertain time. And if Cantor doesn't run, it's hard to see anyone else mustering the votes to oust Boehner.
There's just one problem with the "Cantor coup" hypothesis, though -- Cantor has denied that he'll do it. From his spokesman's Twitter yesterday:
Majority Leader Cantor stands with @speakerboehner. Speculation otherwise is silly, non-productive and untrue.
— Doug Heye (@DougHeye) January 1, 2013
See Charles Krauthammer discuss the possibility of a challenge to Boehner on Fox News:
It is easy to see why Cantor might decline to challenge Boehner at this point, and that would be because in a straight fight, Boehner could probably command the votes of at least 92 Republicans. That's not enough to win the speakership, or the leadership of his own party, but even if a challenger won every single other Republican, it would be more than enough to deny that challenger the speakership in favor of Pelosi. As such, a hostile takeover from Boehner is even more unlikely to happen, on the basis of simple math.
Not that this might stop some people. Matthew Boyle reports:
American Majority Action spokesman Ron Meyer told Breitbart News late Tuesday that enough House Republicans have banded together in an effort to unseat House Speaker John Boehner from his position--they just need a leader to take up the mantle.
“At least 20 House Republican members have gotten together, discussed this and want to unseat Speaker Boehner--and are willing to do what it takes to do it,” Meyer said. “That’s more than enough to get the job done, but the one problem these guys face is they need a leader to coalesce behind.”[...]
AMA is hardly the only conservative entity aware of the rekindled effort afoot to unseat Boehner. Another conservative with inside knowledge of the effort told Breitbart News that the movement has "new focus and juice," and if enough members go to Boehner telling him they won’t support his re-election, that Americans should “watch for him to resign gracefully.”
Now, while "at least 20 members" is scarcely enough to cause GOP panic (remember, it takes more than 30 to put Boehner in danger of losing the speakership), the idea of Boehner resigning voluntarily if enough Republicans refuse to support him is not impossible. Yet while such an outcome is possible, whether it's likely is another question. As Alana Goodman at Commentary observes:
[American Majority Action] has been one of Boehner’s most vocal critics, so it’s not clear how much of this is just wishful thinking and how much reflects an actual burgeoning revolt. For one, Cantor’s office has downplayed his rift with Boehner, saying he stands behind the current speaker. And many members might be concerned about shaking up House GOP leadership right before the debt ceiling debate.
Then there’s the question of how much of this the Boehner opposition brought on itself. After all, the speaker’s Plan B deal that was killed by his internal critics was better in comparison to what ended up going through yesterday. Conservatives have legitimate complaints about the final deal, and legitimate grievances about the closed-door process of negotiations. But Boehner had to play the hand he was dealt, and unfortunately for Republicans it’s been stacked against them since the November election.
And then there is the simple fact that, if Boehner is going to go and Cantor is going to stand for his job, both men are running out of time. The vote is only hours away, and that is quite arguably not enough time for an orderly transition of power to occur.
Ultimately, while widespread discontent with Boehner is obviously a factor, and it is unclear whether he will be able to hold onto his leadership position in the long run, in the short run the number of factors arguing against a Congressional coup outweigh the factors arguing for it. Unpopular party leaders have faced much hyped prospects of defeat before (most recently in the case of Nancy Pelosi in 2010), and emerged unscathed. Boehner has weaknesses as a leader, and is certainly vulnerable over the long haul as an able representative of the GOP caucus, but for now, the safe assumption should be that he'll hang on to his job.
UPDATE: Eddie Scarry over at the blog sends over this RedState piece that shows that a plurality of votes would not be enough to win the speakership. Thus, rather than Pelosi assuming the job, votes would be repeated as horse trading occurs between different candidates. While this makes a Pelosi speakership with a Republican majority less likely, it doesn't make it impossible, since disgruntled Republicans could simply vote 'Present,' but that is unlikely. The more likely outcome in this situation is a messy set of repeated iterations of the vote for Speaker, which leaves the House leaderless.