House Conservatives Are Plotting a Mutiny Against John Boehner

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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