Foes of Speaker John Boehner were scrambling Tuesday morning to find enough votes to prevent his re-election, as a groundswell of opposition looked unlikely to materialize.
In the hours before the midday vote for House speaker, at least 15 Republicans had publicly suggested they would oppose keeping Boehner in the top job—well short of the 29 votes needed to force a second ballot. The actual margin needed to win will depend on who shows up on the floor. Several New York Democrats were expected to attend the funeral of ex-Gov. Mario Cuomo Tuesday, meaning fewer votes against Boehner and an easier path to victory for the Republican.
Boehner and his allies expect little more than a symbolic challenge, and they have predicted that the veteran leader will secure another term atop the House. Whether Boehner's foes will accumulate enough votes to at least embarrass the speaker, or will simply make themselves look less relevant, remained an open question as the vote loomed.
Rep. Ted Yoho, a well-liked yet not broadly popular conservative, said he would accept the nomination. So did Rep. Louie Gohmert, a frequent critic of leadership, who late last year ran an unsuccessful campaign to chair the conservative Republican Study Committee. Neither, however, seems to have laid the groundwork for a successful leadership challenge.
As a result, Rep. Tom Cole said he expects Boehner to win the election comfortably, padded by his party's larger majority in the House. Cole said he regards the votes against Boehner as a political stunt, particularly because the conference already voted in a closed-door election in November to reelect Boehner.
"It, frankly, is politically immature. All these people had an opportunity in our conference elections to run against the speaker," he said. "I'm just mystified why people want to wait for the last minute; I guess because there's more publicity."¦ But it's just disrupting and dis-unifying."
In that conference vote, Boehner was selected unanimously, and he was nominated by Rep. Trey Gowdy, whom some conservative pundits, such as Sean Hannity of Fox News, have been trying to draft as a challenger.
Nevertheless, Gohmert said on Fox News Channel on Monday morning that in the wake of that vote, he was especially frustrated by Boehner's decision to move ahead with an omnibus spending bill in December rather than waiting for the GOP to take over the Senate. Gohmert said it was "like Custer saying 'Let's attack now,' before" reinforcements arrive.
Gohmert added that a significant percentage of Americans were ready to abandon Republicans because "they're so fed up that we're not fighting for what we said we would." And he suggested that the GOP "can put [President] Obama on the defensive just by completely getting rid of the [tax] code," and pushing for a flat tax instead.
Some who voted against Boehner at the outset of the last Congress have said they will do so again, including Reps. Jim Bridenstine and Walter Jones. (Jones tolda North Carolina newspaper Saturday he would back Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida for the job.) Some freshmen have said they, too, will not support the speaker, such as Rep. Dave Brat, who unseated then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary last year. It is possible that other newcomers will join the charge, including members such as Rep. Jody Hice, who said on the campaign trail he would not support Boehner.
But some conservatives have changed their minds since the 2013 vote. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who in the last Congress abstained from voting for Boehner by walking out of the House chamber in a public show of disdain, said he will support Boehner this go-around.
In a Facebook question-and-answer session on Friday, Mulvaney responded to users asking him to vote against Boehner and goad another candidate into running by noting that there is no such viable alternative.
"I had that fight two years ago.... remember? ...we failed miserably, and all it did was marginalize conservatives. I fail to see how the same thing wouldn't happen again," he said. "I am all for having a good fight...in fact, it is part of my job that I really enjoy sometimes...but at the same time, I do remember Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome."
For Boehner foes, getting to the requisite 29 votes is a tall order. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement that Boehner expects the vote on the floor to be successful.
"Rep. Boehner was selected as the House Republican Conference's choice for speaker in November, and he expects to be elected by the whole House this week," Steel said.
Rep. Devin Nunes, a Boehner ally who has a seat on the Steering Committee that decides committee assignments, said he is baffled by this late campaign against Boehner, and sees it as a larger issue when added to the near-sinking of a rule for debate on the omnibus bill in December. He said he plans to discuss the issue with the rest of the Steering Committee to first try to get an understanding of what specifically Boehner's detractors are peeved about, but that consequences may be appropriate.
"I think the Steering Committee has to deal with this," Nunes said. "Something has to be done, we have to figure out what was going through one's mind when they voted against the rule before we left out of here. Because that is really self-destructive, that's self-destructive behavior."
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Daniel Newhauser is a staff correspondent for National Journal, where he primarily covers the House of Representatives. He was formerly a House leadership reporter for Roll Call, where he started as an intern in 2010 and quickly earned a slot as a beat reporter.
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Newhauser traveled further West to study journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and write for newspapers including the East Valley Tribune and the Green Valley News & Sun.