House Conservatives Are Plotting a Mutiny Against John Boehner

Though the speaker easily weathered a coup attempt in 2013, some right-wing members are quietly putting together a plan to try again.
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Several dozen frustrated House conservatives are scheming to infiltrate the GOP leadership next year—possibly by forcing Speaker John Boehner to step aside immediately after November's midterm elections.

The conservatives' exasperation with leadership is well known. And now, in discreet dinners at the Capitol Hill Club and in winding, hypothetical-laced email chains, they're trying to figure out what to do about it. Some say it's enough to coalesce behind—and start whipping votes for—a single conservative leadership candidate. Others want to cut a deal with Majority Leader Eric Cantor: We'll back you for speaker if you promise to bring aboard a conservative lieutenant.

But there's a more audacious option on the table, according to conservatives involved in the deliberations. They say between 40 and 50 members have already committed verbally to electing a new speaker. If those numbers hold, organizers say, they could force Boehner to step aside as speaker in late November, when the incoming GOP conference meets for the first time, by showing him that he won't have the votes to be reelected in January.

The masterminds of this mutiny are trying to stay in the shadows for as long as possible to avoid putting a target on their backs. But one Republican said the "nucleus"of the rebellion can be found inside the House Liberty Caucus, of which he and his comrades are members. This is not surprising, considering that some of the key players in that group—Justin Amash of Michigan, Raul Labrador of Idaho, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky—were among the 12 Republicans who refused to back Boehner's reelection in January 2013.

Amash, chairman of the Liberty Caucus, warned at the time that there would be a "larger rebellion" down the road if Boehner's leadership team did not bring conservatives into the fold. Such an insurrection never materialized, however, as Boehner deftly navigated a series of challenges last year and wound up winning over some of the malcontents.

But conservatives, increasingly irritated with what they see as a cautious approach taken by their leadership, are now adamant that Boehner's tenure should expire with this Congress.

"There are no big ideas coming out of the conference. Our leadership expects to coast through this election by banking on everyone's hatred for Obamacare," said one Republican lawmaker who is organizing the rebellion. "There's nothing big being done. We're reshuffling chairs on the Titanic."

Boehner isn't the only target. The conservatives find fault with the entire leadership team. Privately, they define success as vaulting one of their own into any one of the top three leadership spots. But they think they're less likely to accomplish even that limited goal with a narrow effort focused on knocking out one person or winning a single slot. That's why this time around, unlike the ham-fisted mutiny of 2013, rebels are broadening their offensive beyond Boehner's gavel.

Cantor, next in line for speaker and once considered a shoo-in to succeed Boehner, has found himself in conservatives' crosshairs in recent weeks.

With Boehner out of town in late March, Cantor was charged with pushing a "doc fix" bill across the finish line. When it became apparent the measure might not clear the House floor, Cantor authorized a voice vote, allowing the bill to pass without registered resistance. This maneuver infuriated conservatives, who felt that leadership—Cantor in particular—had cheated them. Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Caroline yelled "Bullshit!" outside the House chamber.

Some conservatives are still seething.

"I'm getting used to being deceived by the Obama Administration, but when my own leadership does it, it's just not acceptable," Representative Matt Salmon of Arizona said last week, after Cantor met with a group of angry Republican Study Committee members.

Cantor told conservatives that a voice vote was "the least-bad option," given the circumstances. But many Republicans aren't buying it. Moreover, they said that with Boehner out of town, Cantor had an opportunity to impress them with his management of the conference—and didn't.

"It's an issue of trust. If you want to have a majority that is governing, and a majority that is following the leader, the rest of us need to be in a position where we trust our leadership," Labrador said this week, adding, "When you have politicians actually playing tricks on their own party, and their own members of Congress, I think that erodes the trust the American people have in the rest of us."

"I can't think of a time where I felt my trust had been more violated since I've been here—and that's pretty stiff competition," Mulvaney added.

Cantor's allies say the whole episode has been overblown. But there's no question that it has stirred fresh disillusionment within the rank and file. And it's not just the Tea Party members up in arms. One House Republican who is friendly with Cantor, and hardly viewed as a troublemaker, predicted, "If there's another vote like [that], Eric won't be speaker. Ever."

This backlash has emboldened some of leadership's conservative critics. Now, they say, they might try to force Boehner out and also demand that Cantor bring on a conservative deputy before agreeing to vote for him as speaker.

"Eric would make that deal in a heartbeat," said a Republican lawmaker who supports Cantor but opposes Boehner.

Neither Cantor nor his office would comment on leadership races.

Even if Cantor does ascend to speaker, there could be fireworks further down the leadership ladder. Doubts persist about whether Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, Cantor's closest friend in Congress, should earn a promotion to majority leader. The Californian is universally well liked, but some colleagues aren't sold on his performance as whip. And if McCarthy does earn the No. 2 spot, there will almost certainly be a free-for-all to succeed him as whip, imperiling the expected advance of Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam.

Amid all the bold talk about Boehner and Cantor and the other leaders, some conservatives are thinking smaller. There is talk of meeting with leadership officials this fall and making demands about steering committee appointments and chairmanships. The idea would be to redistribute the decision-making and shake up what Representative Louie Gohmert calls the "centralized, stovepipe dictatorship" that runs the congressional wing of the GOP.

Some members are convinced that Boehner will spare everyone the drama and decide to leave on his own. Sources close to the speaker have begun leaving the exit door ever so slightly open, and rumors of his retirement are now running rampant throughout the conference.

"All of this hinges on whether John is running for reelection," Mulvaney, who refused to vote for Boehner's reelection in 2013, said of the potential leadership shuffling.

"I'd say about 80 percent of us expect him to step down after the elections," added one House Republican who has known Boehner for many years.

Boehner insists that he'll seek another term as speaker.

"Speaker Boehner is focused on the American people's top priority: helping our economy create more private sector jobs," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. "He has also said—publicly and privately—that he plans to be speaker again in the next Congress."

But conservative plotters promise that, unlike 15 months ago, they've got the numbers to prevent that from happening. Even if they can't recruit an alternative to pit against him, they'll tell Boehner in the November conference meeting that they plan to vote against him on the House floor in January "until kingdom come," one GOP lawmaker said.

It's similar to the strategy conservatives used in 1998 to depose Speaker Newt Gingrich, who gave up his gavel in November once it became apparent that conservatives had the numbers to block his reelection on the floor in January. In this case, Boehner won't be able to win a majority vote of the House if a large bloc of conservatives sticks together and votes against him. Sooner rather than later, the conservatives predict, the speaker would spare himself that humiliation and step aside.

But as of yet, there is no sign of a serious conservative challenger willing to run for a top leadership job, let alone for Boehner's.

Organizers are actively recruiting two highly respected conservatives—Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Jim Jordan of Ohio—hoping that one will agree to lead their opposition movement. But both have told colleagues they aren't interested. And the other frequently discussed scenarios, such as RSC Chairman Steve Scalise running for whip, would hardly qualify as the splash conservatives are determined to make.

The attempted overthrow in 2013 failed in part because conservatives didn't have an alternative candidate for on-the-fence Republicans to rally around. Now, with each passing day, organizers fear history could repeat itself.

"Somebody has to step forward," said Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, one of 12 Republicans who refused to back Boehner's reelection in 2013. "This is not something where after the election you can step forward. There's going to be months and months of [planning] needed."

Allies of the current leadership team dismiss the legitimacy of any challenge to the ruling order, and they predict that any conservative coup—especially one aimed at winning the speakership—will fail. One senior Republican said that there are only "three Republicans capable of winning majority support to become speaker of the House: John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan."

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Tim Alberta is editor of Hotline Last Call!, the afternoon newsletter of National Journal Hotline.

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