By and large, Democrats have longed viewed Boehner as an affable but ineffective speaker. He wants to make deals on issues like immigration and the deficit, but he’s lacked either the political courage or the salesmanship to overcome conservative opposition in his party. “I think most Democrats think the alternative would be worse,” said Representative John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat. Yarmuth told me on Friday that he could see himself voting to keep Boehner in office if it came to it. But his thinking is far from the consensus within the party. Another House Democrat, Gerry Connolly of Virginia, told me it would be “untenable” for any Democrat to vote for Boehner. “No Democrat,” he said, “could go home and say he or she voted for a Republican speaker.” One possible way out for Democrats would be to vote present; because only a majority of those voting is needed, that would lower the bar enough for Boehner to survive as speaker with Republican votes alone. Democrats would, in that case, have kept him afloat without directly voting for him.
Boehner has voiced confidence he’ll survive a challenge, but reports are rampant that Republicans beneath him are already jockeying for the position in the event of a new leadership race. The Republican next in line is Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, but while some conservatives might prefer him to Boehner, others are likely to push for someone less tied to the establishment and with more credibility on the right.
A floor challenge to Boehner is unlikely to come before October and might well depend on whether he leads Republicans into another government shutdown after federal funding runs out on September 30. Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, a relatively new group of hard-right lawmakers, have said they won’t vote for any spending bill that includes money for Planned Parenthood. President Obama has vowed to veto any attempt to defund the women’s health organization, and such a bill would almost certainly be filibustered in the Senate before it reached his desk. (Even Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has deemed the effort foolhardy.)
Boehner has “a tough job, but he’s got to make a simple decision,” said Representative Peter Welch, a Democrat from Vermont. “Is he going to continue an appeasement policy toward that radical wing of the party, or throw them overboard and work with Democrats and reasonable Republicans?” It’s a similar decision to the one Boehner faced in 2013, when he went along with conservatives and forced a government shutdown over Obamacare. Yet he publicly rued that move, said it hurt the party, and vowed (along with McConnell) not to repeat it.
Officially, Democratic leaders say Boehner’s problems are his own, and they aren’t talking about what they might do if his job was on the line. “This is not our fight. This is their fight,” said Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat who is close to Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader. “The problem is that their fight is dragging us toward another government shutdown and towards another fiscal cliff.”
Democrats don’t want to get involved in their internal battles, nor should we get involved in their internal battles. It’s their civil war. It’s not ours.
Still, what began as solely a Republican problem might land on the Democrats’ desk, and the discussion has already turned to what Pelosi might get if she agrees to help Boehner save his speaker’s gavel. Would it be a sweeter budget deal? A long-term highway bill? Reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank? Connolly said those scenarios may be fun to hash out, but they're equally unrealistic. “I think we’ve all been watching too much House of Cards,” he quipped when I pressed him on the possibility.