Could John Boehner Lose the House Speaker's Gavel?

A conservative group wants to engineer his ouster. It's a long shot -- but not impossible.


Think Congress is dysfunctional during these fiscal-cliff negotiations? What if John Boehner can't even get enough House Republican votes next month to be reelected as speaker?

Far-fetched? Perhaps. But at least one conservative group says Boehner's hold on the speaker's gavel should not be viewed as a done deal. It is launching an all-out effort aimed at about 100 House Republicans to see if it can find at least 17 of them angry enough, and bold enough, to block Boehner's reelection when the new Congress commences on Jan. 3.

"With Boehner basically out there promoting a tax hike and removing conservatives from key committees, these are not good precedents for the next two years," Ned Ryun, whose father, Jim Ryun, was a representative for Kansas, complained to the National Journal on Thursday.

Ned Ryun is president and CEO of American Majority, a Virginia-based group that says it has trained thousands of conservative activists and also says that it embraces but predates the Tea Party movement. He is getting attention with a blog he posted on Wednesday -- not so much because he says Boehner should be fired as speaker, but because he says the conservative movement could actually accomplish that goal under House rules and that it does not have to be a "fairy-tale" wish.

Boehner, whose last two years as speaker already have been mired in grousing from conservative groups, is again being hit this week from the far right over his counteroffer in fiscal-cliff negotiations with the White House to raise $800 billion in revenue by closing special-interest loopholes and tax deductions. Some groups are casting this as his seeming openness to breaking a promise not to raise taxes.

Adding to that anger has been other news this week that the speaker and his House GOP steering committee had purged four conservatives from their coveted committee seats, at least three of whom have been butting heads with party leaders over government spending and the federal deficit. This just weeks after Boehner had pleaded for unity in a private conference call to fellow House Republicans on the day after the Nov. 6 election.

For this anger to result in Boehner losing his speaker's gavel, explained Ryun to National Journal on Thursday, enough conservative members need to show "some guts" and publicly rebel.

He says his group is looking at a list of about 100 conservatives whom they will try to persuade to step up, go public with their disappointment in Boehner, and show they are willing to take the risks and potential punishment Boehner has already shown he will dish out if such an effort fails.

In fact, there was already some murmuring within the House Republican conference itself about potential maneuvering in the upcoming speaker election as a way to express conservative discontent, say House GOP sources familiar with such talks.

But each of those who spoke -- all on the condition they not be identified -- also underscored that they've seen no concerted effort yet to organize anything beyond some conservatives saying they might simply vote "present" instead of specifically for Boehner. Even doing that would bring potential punishment from top leaders, because the votes are public.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel responded on Thursday by pointing out that the Ohio Republican last month "was honored to be selected by the House Republican Conference to be its candidate for speaker." In fact, there was only one other candidate nominated in that closed-door process. And the nomination by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, of former Speaker Newt Gingrich did not even receive a seconding. But there was no actual roll-call vote, and Boehner was selected by acclamation.

For their part, House Democrats reelected Nancy Pelosi as their leader, and also their nominee to be speaker.

Under normal circumstances, Boehner's reelection as speaker on Jan. 3 should be automatic. House Republicans are set to enter the new Congress holding 234 seats and the Democrats will have 200 seats (one of the House's total 435 seats is to be vacant with the resignation last month of former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois). But the linchpin of the conservative "oust-Boehner" strategy being floated rests on the requirement that to be elected as speaker, a candidate must receive an "absolute majority" of all House member votes cast for individuals.

And as confirmed in the details contained in a Congressional Research Service analysis dated Jan. 6, 2011, titled, "Speakers of the House: Elections, 1913-2011," a concerted effort by as few as 17 House conservatives could -- in fact -- throw this normally routine reelection process for Boehner into turmoil.

"Members normally vote for the (speaker) candidate of their own party conference, but may vote for any individual, whether nominated or not," states the CRS report. "To be elected, a candidate must receive an absolute majority of all the votes cast for individuals. This number may be less than a majority (now 218) of the full membership of the House, because of vacancies, absentees, or members voting "present."

In short, with Jackson having retired, as few as 17 House Republican members now can deny Boehner an "absolute majority" of the total 434 expected votes on Jan. 3, if all the Democrats back Pelosi.

The CRS report goes on to note that the elected speaker has always been a sitting member of the House, but the Constitution does not require that to be so. As a result, Republicans upset with Boehner aren't limited to voting for Pelosi, or even another Republican, but almost anyone as a symbolic alternative.

"If no candidate receives the requisite majority, the roll call is repeated until a Speaker is elected.

Since 1913, this procedure has been necessary only in 1923, when nine ballots were required before a speaker was elected, states the report.

On Thursday, one House Republican member, who described himself during the interview as a conservative, said he has not been approached by any colleagues about such a maneuver but has heard discussion about it from other sources. He insisted he would not go along with such a ploy -- but he also said that if Boehner were to not be elected on the first ballot, it would be tantamount to a "no confidence vote." He said that would likely lead to some energetic closed-door conferences to iron out differences, "or even pick a new leader."

This lawmaker said that in such a scenario, he did not believe either Majority Leader Eric Cantor nor Majority Whip Kevin Smith would be selected by the conference as its new nominee -- "because they are all functioning as one team."

Meanwhile, a senior House Democratic aide appeared to relish such talk, saying it indicates Boehner's leadership team "is going to have to work their butts off and call in every chit to make sure he wins what should normally be just a boring vote."

"If Speaker Boehner wants to purge independent, bold conservatives -- I think it's time he gets fired as speaker," blogged Ryun. "Not only for the purge. He has failed to effectively win negotiations with President Obama and appointed moderate committee chairs. To the public, Boehner may appear radical, but in reality he proposes milquetoast policies, like the tax hikes he proposed this week."