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.

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

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