Waiting for John Boehner's Revenge

Never a strict disciplinarian, the speaker must now decide whether—and how—to punish the conservatives who deserted him.

Jim Bourg/Reuters

First came the rebellion, now what about the consequences? That is the predicament now confronting John Boehner as he plots how to respond to Tuesday's historic rebellion, in which two dozen of his own members refused to support his reelection as House speaker in a televised vote.

It's a question that has vexed the affable Ohio Republican throughout his tenure. First, some context: John Boehner has never been the revenge type.

When Tea Party-inspired conservatives began bucking him shortly after he became House speaker in 2011, he did little more than shrug. Boehner campaigned on a promise of opening up the House from its highly-centralized control under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the rebellions, he suggested, flowed naturally from that change. "Let the House work its will," was his motto. Not every bill would pass, and that was okay by him.

The revolts continued. Conservatives thwarted his attempt to strike a grand bargain with President Obama on the deficit and nearly sent the nation into default. Boehner grew frustrated, but still, he took no action against the dissidents. There wasn't much he could do, he said, and this too was a point of pride. Historically, party leaders had used earmarks to secure loyalty by doling out—or threatening to cancel—pet spending projects that lawmakers routinely brought home to their districts. But in one of his first acts as speaker, Boehner banned earmarks, moving in a single stroke to enact a significant personal achievement while removing one of the critical tools his predecessors had used to do their jobs.

Nearly two years later, Boehner and his leadership team finally moved against four of their most frequent Republican antagonists, stripping them of key committee assignments. The move backfired. Conservatives labeled it a "purge," and a month later, three of the targeted members joined with several other colleagues to embarrass Boehner on the floor of the House with a badly-organized attempt to oust him as speaker. The next two years were no easier for the leadership, which continued to struggle passing key legislation without relying on Democrats for help.

That brings us to Tuesday, when the revolt against Boehner more than doubled in size from 2013, and 24 Republicans backed someone else for speaker. Unlike two years ago, this opposition did not catch the leadership by surprise. Within hours of the vote, word got out that the strongest of Boehner's three challengers, Representative Daniel Webster of Florida, and one of his 12 supporters, Rich Nugent of Florida, had been removed from their posts on the Rules Committee. (Whether getting thrown off the Rules Committee, a plum but pretty boring assignment, is actually a punishment is another debate, but its members are appointed by the speaker.) A third dissident, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, told reporters that within an hour of sending a tweet announcing his intent to vote against Boehner, a committee chairman (whom he would not name) called him to tell him a subcommittee post he wanted was now gone.

Daniel Webster and Rich Nugent (Left: John Raoux/AP, Right: Charles Dharapak/AP)

Yet even those punishments might not stick. Predictably, conservatives immediately denounced the moves against Webster and Nugent. Ted Yoho, another of Boehner's Florida challengers, was overheard by a Roll Call reporter comparing the speaker to Vladimir Putin and his even stronger-armed Soviet predecessors. "Hey, welcome to the new USSR," he said. (Just an hour or so earlier, Yoho was telling reporters that his beef with Boehner had been "laid to rest" after the speaker vote.) On Wednesday morning, in the first meeting of the full House GOP conference in the new Congress, other conservatives rose to protest any retributive action. "I voiced what I think is an ubiquitous opinion among the conference that revenge should never be any part of any equation like this," Representative Trent Franks, a conservative who had backed Boehner, told reporters afterward. "Nothing sows the seeds of revolution more effectively among family members than vengeful retribution."

At a subsequent press conference, Boehner turned to euphemisms and said that no final decisions about committee assignments had been made, pending "a family conversation" among Republicans. That talk began on Wednesday and would continue. Pointedly, the speaker refused to say whether any of the 20-odd other members who rebelled were safe from punishment. As for Webster and Nugent, they hadn't been returned to the Rules Committee, but neither had their replacements been named.

What's important to understand is that the question of punishment is not about Boehner alone. For years, his allies have pushed him to crack down on the most disloyal members of the conference, as have other Republicans frustrated that they must take tough votes even as colleagues rebel without consequence. On the evening before Tuesday's vote, an Ohio friend of Boehner's, Pat Tiberi, was asked by a reporter whether the members who voted against the speaker should be reprimanded in some way. He paused, and briefly smiled. "I'm not going to go there," he replied. "I'll get in trouble."

The trouble is now in Boehner's office. Having moved swiftly against Webster and Nugent, he'll look weak if he pulls back entirely. But a more aggressive response risks inflaming the many conservatives who helped him secure another two years as speaker on Tuesday. All in all, it's quite a quandary for the second day of the term.