John Boehner's Firewall: Democrats

"I'm with Boehner," says Rep. Jim Clyburn. It would only take a few more Democrats to ensure the Speaker's job is safe.

Rep. James Clyburn says he will vote to save Speaker John Boehner if he has to. (National Journal)

In the coming days, House Speaker John Boehner might need the help of Democrats to keep his gavel. While all eyes are on Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—and whether she’ll urge her caucus to aid her sparring partner across the aisle—her decision might not actually matter. It likely would take only a handful of reluctant Democrats to help Boehner stay in power. And a few have already signaled they will.

“I’m with Boehner,” said Rep. James Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the leadership ranks. “This stuff disrupting the business of the country, I'm not for. He's the elected speaker; I'm not going to vote to vacate the chair.”

Others have been less willing to openly come to Boehner’s defense, but it would likely take near-unanimity among Democrats to push Boehner out. The issue has been forced by House conservatives, who have signaled they may soon bring up a motion to vacate the chair, a vote that would put Boehner’s future in the hands of the House’s 435 members.

It’s likely the move would be followed by a Boehner ally’s motion to table, or put aside, the bill. While the majority of Republicans would probably vote to table, the 40-plus members of the House Freedom Caucus who have been leading the movement to oust Boehner would keep them short of the 218 votes needed for a full House majority. That would leave Boehner’s future in the hands of Democrats.

But unless Freedom Caucus members can recruit more than a few rank-and-file Republicans to join their coup, Boehner would need the support of only a dozen or so Democrats to stay in power. Even within a caucus that’s had its share of issues with Boehner, there’s a sentiment among some that a conservative-backed replacement would be even more difficult to work with. And with government funding and debt-ceiling deadlines fast approaching, many want to avoid further chaos that could disrupt the House’s business.

Still, others say they’d find it difficult to do anything to help a GOP leader stay in power, and allowing a bloody speakership fight to play out could do serious damage to the Republican brand. Some believe the solution is for Democrats to simply vote “present,” allowing Boehner’s majority within the GOP to stand on its own—without explicitly supporting him.

Pelosi’s office said she has not provided guidance to members on how to handle a potential vote, nor has she discussed it with her leadership team. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer has also avoided saying how he plans to handle the issue. “Our strategy has been very deliberate to keep the eye on Republicans,” said a Democratic leadership aide, noting that a public discussion of Democrats’ tactics would make the story about them.

With no marching orders coming from leadership, there’s no clear consensus among Democrats about what they plan to do—other than enjoy the spectacle. “I’d like to sit and watch,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, a cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But will Democrats ultimately stop the efforts to topple Boehner, if only to avoid plunging the House into chaos? “Probably,” Grijalva conceded.

His counterpart atop the CPC, Rep. Keith Ellison, was less certain that Democrats will help Boehner. “We've yet to really formulate a clear strategy,” Ellison said. He dismissed the notion that Democrats want to keep Boehner around, saying that the speaker's easygoing demeanor only puts a “nice face” on radical policies. “What has Speaker Boehner ever done for the Democratic caucus?” Ellison asked. “What is our reason for standing in the way of [GOP infighting]? ... Who could be more difficult to work with? I don't think there's a worse alternative.”

Others were also reluctant to do anything that could help a GOP speaker. “How does a Democrat go home and say, 'I saved a Republican speakership'?” said Rep. Gerald Connolly. “That's going to be decided on the other side, not our side. How do I know whether the alternative is better or worse or for whom?”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, took a similar tack. “We don't need to get in the way of an uprising within a Republican conference,” he said. “We don't need to get in the way. That's not our fight. We want it to play out; we're watching it with amusement.”

On the GOP side, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is the consensus favorite to replace Boehner—with the assumption that he would appoint conservatives to his leadership team. But Democrats would have no power to determine who emerges as Boehner’s successor, other than forcing candidates to reach the 218-vote threshold to earn the gavel.

Boehner was reelected speaker in January with no Democratic support, and overcoming the opposition of 25 GOP dissenters. Even if that Republican opposition has grown, Boehner would need to earn the support of only a few Democrats who voted against him in the candidate-vs.-candidate race with Pelosi. This time, Boehner’s opponent is a question mark. And that may be enough to convince Democrats to save his job.

“Whatever happens,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley, the Democratic caucus vice chair, “it will be new for everybody.”