How Divine Intervention Saved John Boehner's Speakership

A must-read account of the House's spring term shows how close he came to losing his job, and how the Book of Samuel rescued him.

Back in January, John Boehner faced, and weathered, an attempt to prevent his reelection as speaker of the House. At the time, the coup plotters seemed rather amateurish and ramshackle -- especially when one conspirator left his iPad, with a list of potential allies labeled "You would be fired if this goes out", in plain view of reporters and photographers.

The Washington Post's Paul Kane has a must-read tick-tock of Boehner's winter and spring that shows just how close Boehner came to falling, despite the disorganized dissidents. In fact, several members of the House who were involved decided to support their leader's reelection only after intense prayer:

About 17 defectors were needed to deny Boehner an outright majority. The hope was that if they could block the speaker on the first ballot, they could convene the GOP conference in HC5 and compel someone else -- maybe Cantor, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) or Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) -- to challenge Boehner. Even if no one stood up and Boehner won on a second ballot, it would have been a humiliating rebuke.

[Rep. Steve] Southerland, who has previously talked about his role only with the conservative Weekly Standard, said he read the Old Testament the night before the vote. He read the story of Saul and David, as the king of Israel tried to kill the future king. David wins and, with a chance to kill the king, decides to spare Saul.

Southerland woke up convinced that Boehner should be spared. Others, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they, too, prayed before siding with Boehner.

"He's not a God of chaos, he's a God of order," Southerland said.

Ultimately, Boehner garnered 220 votes, just four more than he needed. But there are signs of lingering weakness. His tone has softened. He has refused to enter into negotiations with President Obama, both because he feels burned by previous talks and because it's not clear it would matter -- even if he and Obama could reach an agreement, what odds would it have of success in Boehner's caucus? And he has occasionally had to rely on Democratic votes to win key votes. Politico bluntly asked last week whether Boehner was "weak."

For now, the heat is off the House. Republicans are delighted to focus on the IRS targeting scandal, and the major legislative pushes -- immigration reform and zombie gun control -- are both bottled up in the Senate for now. But both sides agree that summer and fall will be a major test for the speaker. Boehner may need the help of a higher power again if he's to maintain his grip.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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