Will Democrats Rescue John Boehner?

If conservatives try to overthrow the speaker, it might be up to Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues to save him.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

If John Boehner survives this autumn as speaker, he may owe his job to Democrats.

A group of House conservatives is threatening to try and topple Boehner if he does not risk a government shutdown by making an all-out fight to defund Planned Parenthood this month. Led by Representative Mark Meadows, the conservatives would bring up a rarely-used procedural motion calling for the election of a new speaker. If 30 or more Republicans opposed Boehner, he’d need Democratic votes to defeat the motion and retain the speakership.

It’s a nearly unprecedented choice for Democrats, and one that the party is just now beginning to contemplate. Would they bail out a man who has stymied nearly all of their legislative priorities for five years? Or would they allow Republicans to depose their own leader—a move that might carry political advantages for Democrats but would almost certainly bring about a period of chaos in the House?

Ordinarily, there would be nothing to think about. The biannual vote for speaker is the first the House takes once it convenes after an election, and it is by nature the most partisan: That tally is what formally determines which party controls the majority, and nearly all members simply vote for their own leader. Ousting a speaker in the middle of a term, by contrast, hasn’t been done in more than a century, and if Meadows or another Republican forced a vote on what’s known as a “motion to vacate the chair,” the choice facing Democrats would be Boehner or another Republican, who would almost certainly be more conservative.

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.

More seriously, Connolly argued that whatever standing Boehner had with mainstream House Republicans would evaporate once they found out he cut a deal with Democrats to save himself. For one, he’d be beholden not just to a faction of Republicans, but to the opposition party as well. “There would be a revolt in the Republican ranks that would make the Freedom Caucus look like tiddlywinks,” Connolly predicted. “I mean, he would lose all of his support.” How would Boehner face his members the next day? Connolly mused. “His head would be on a pike coming out of that caucus meeting and paraded all around the Capitol campus for everyone to see,” he said.

Connolly's hyperbole points to a starker reality for Boehner. The House of Representatives is not a coalition government—it is run by a majority party, which must be led by a speaker with the support of his (or her) members. If Democrats have to bail out Boehner this fall, he might hold on to his gavel, but he won’t have a majority of the House truly behind him.