Will John Boehner Be Embarrassed Again?

A group of dissident conservatives is trying to deny the speaker a third term when the House convenes to reelect him on Tuesday.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Updated January 5, 10:05 p.m.

Barring a stunner, John Boehner will be reelected as speaker when the House convenes for the beginning of the 114th Congress. But as opposition from conservatives trickles out, it appears Boehner won't be able to escape the indignity of watching a dozen or more members of his own party refuse to support him in a public vote shortly after noon on Tuesday.

Two Republicans, Representatives Ted Yoho of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas, have launched what can only be described as extreme long-shot bids to challenge Boehner during the formal floor vote. And several other GOP lawmakers have cited a range of grievances—the $1 trillion "omnibus" spending bill, insufficiently aggressive conservative governance, broken promises—in declaring they won't support the Ohioan. What does it all amount to? While short of a coup, the late protests will ensure that for the second consecutive term, a vote that is ordinarily a formality will carry with it the potential for high drama.

At the beginning of each Congress, the first vote the House takes is to elect a speaker. The two candidates are generally the leaders each party has nominated by secret-ballot votes, and with rare exceptions, what follows is a ceremonial party-line vote in which lawmakers stand when their name is called and shout the name of their side's nominee. But in 2013, Boehner's allies watched nervously as 12 Republicans either voted for someone else or no one at all. (A lawmaker can vote for almost anyone; the Constitution doesn't require the speaker to even be a member of the House.) The badly-organized effort ultimately fell a few votes short, but for several long minutes in the House chamber, it was unclear whether Boehner would be able to muster the majority needed to claim the speaker's gavel.

The push to oust Boehner appears no more organized this year, and as in 2013, his critics lack a credible alternative willing to take on the speaker. Eric Cantor, the former majority leader and one-time speaker-in-waiting, is no longer in Congress, having himself been toppled in a primary defeat last year. (His replacement, Dave Brat, is one of those opposing Boehner.) Jeb Hensarling, a Texas conservative and committee chairman, has refused multiple entreaties to challenge Boehner. Yoho and Gohmert? They'll be lucky to get anyone to vote for them beside themselves. A veterinarian beginning his second term, Yoho won his seat after defeating a longtime incumbent Republican in a primary. Gohmert is known for his colorful (and, to many, highly offensive) quotes, including comparing the influx of child migrants at the border to an "invasion" and suggesting that judges who rule in favor of gay marriage need "basic plumbing lessons."

Louie Gohmert (Molly Riley/AP)

Another second-term conservative, Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, has tried to galvanize support for an alternative after he issued a lengthy statement last week detailing his problems with Boehner. His complaints centered on the speaker's push to pass the omnibus spending bill, which he characterized as a capitulation to "liberal activist" President Obama. "Speaker Boehner went too far when he teamed with Obama to advance this legislation," Bridenstine said. "He relinquished the power of the purse, and with it he lost my vote." Since his declaration, Representative Steve King of Iowa, the loudest foe of immigration reform, has come out against Boehner, along with Representative Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, who accused the leadership of lying to him last year. King told reporters in the Capitol on Monday evening that opposition to Boehner was growing and that it was "possible" he'd be ousted. A top GOP vote-counter, Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, said that the speaker had the support to be reelected.

Boehner benefits this time around from a larger GOP majority following the electoral gains in November. If all members vote, he would need to hold his Republicans defections to under 29 to claim victory on the first ballot. According to the various public whip lists, at least nine and as many as 12 Republicans have publicly declared their opposition to Boehner. Three conservatives who refused to back Boehner in 2013—Representatives Mick Mulvaney, Raul Labrador, and Tim Huelskamp—have indicated they'll support him on Tuesday, at least on a first ballot. The best hope for Boehner's opponents is that they deny him the post initially, forcing GOP leaders to call an emergency closed-door meeting, where they would hope to persuade a bigger name—Hensarling perhaps—to step up as a candidate.

The major difference this year is that rather than plotting secretly and trying to catch Boehner by surprise on the day of the vote, critics have gone public with their opposition in the hopes of encouraging their colleagues to join them in a groundswell. Conservative personalities like Sean Hannity and Erick Erickson are pushing to block Boehner from winning another term, as is the Tea Party group FreedomWorks. Publicly, Boehner's office is projecting confidence. "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," spokesman Michael Steel said Monday morning.

So if they can't topple Boehner, what can conservatives accomplish by narrowing his victory margin on Tuesday? If the goal is to send him a message, it's one that during four years of intra-party skirmishes, he's heard many times before. Republicans had rejoiced in November not just over capturing the Senate and full control of Congress for the first time in eight years, but in watching divided Democrats lay into one another in public. As the new Congress begins, however, the story of disunity has returned, for the moment, to the GOP.