by Jonathan Strong 23 Mar 2014
Top Republicans are hoping for a happy beginning to the next, 114th Congress, with the GOP taking control of the Senate and forcing President Obama on his heels for the last two years of his term.
But in the House, the clouds are already gathering over the first day of the next session, when the chamber votes to elect a Speaker.
“My sense at the present time that the Speaker doesn't have the support of the conference,” says South Carolina Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan about John Boehner. Another member of the House privately estimates that 40 Republican lawmakers would vote against Boehner on the floor and says “I've seen a running total.”
“Believe me, they're not going to go through the national embarrassment -- all of the cameras are on the floor -- they're not going to go through that. A leader will emerge before that happens,” the source adds.
The discussions behind closed doors, which have picked up dramatically in past months, are still at the early stages, and it's not clear whether Boehner will even come back. There are also still nine months left in 2014 – an eternity in politics.
But based on interviews with a broad array of plugged-in Republicans over the last several weeks, it seems unlikely the transition into 2015 will pass through peacefully.
“There are conversations being had,” Duncan adds.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor has turned up the intensity of his outreach to members in preparation for the possibility Boehner retires but is facing new questions from the right about his conservative bona fides.
After feuding with Boehner in the first two years after Republicans took control of the House in 2010, Cantor cut it out and began vigorously backing the Speaker at every turn. Now, instead of drawing scrutiny for creating palace intrigue, he's under fire for going along with Boehner's controversial decisions, such as violating the Hastert rule to pass the “clean” debt ceiling increase.
“I could go through chapter and verse on multiple times when we ended up having some crappy vote on the floor and it was all Cantor's idea," the member who estimated 40 lawmakers would vote against Boehner says. "Almost every time we've violated the Hastert rule, it's been something that Cantor was pushing. I think he's more scary than Boehner.”
Cantor's allies say he's conscientious in his support for Boehner because when the two warred in 2011 it undermined the House GOP's strength when going up against President Obama.
“What you're seeing from Eric right now is just realism about the bad hand we're dealt. If we can keep our head down in the next eight months and keep pushing on Obamacare and on spending and our solutions, then we get the Senate,” says a key Cantor lieutenant.
Rory Cooper, a Cantor spokesman, says, “the Speaker of the House is John Boehner, period, and the Majority Leader is proud to call him a friend and have him leading House Republicans.”
Questions about whether Boehner will return to the next Congress got a lift recently when Breitbart News reported that he purchased a condo in Marco Island, Florida, where he has vacationed with his family for years.
Boehner has vowed he is running again, sometimes going to elaborate lengths to underscore the point like hosting a dinner with his top K Street allies where he tried to put the rumors to bed. He's also kept up his brutal travel schedule, appearing at fundraisers all over the country.
“Speaker Boehner has said publicly and privately he is running for reelection,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.
Still, there are plenty of doubts. Most Republicans say that he would definitely leave if Republicans didn't win control of the Senate, although they think he may want to stick around for two years in which the GOP has control of both chambers. Also, a lot of armchair psycho-analyzing is going on about why he seems to have let loose in the past six months, including ripping the powerful conservative “outside groups” and joking to comedian Jay Leno about how GOP infighting may be the worst it's ever been.
Boehner's intentions are essentially an unknowable fact. Politicians at his rank tend to be conceal their retirement plans even from their closest friends, and to avoid lame duck status he would need to claim he was staying on even if he didn't intend to.
If he decides to stay, that could set up a major showdown on the floor during the Speaker's vote. According to the Congressional Research Service, to be elected Speaker one needs an absolute majority of the members casting a vote for an individual. A few Republicans could vote for anyone else (but not present) to cause a deadlocked vote. In 1923, nine votes were required to elect the Speaker, the most recent time that a deadlock occurred.
However, before the floor election, there will be a closed-door GOP conference meeting to elect leaders for the next Congress at the end of 2014. The pressure from top Republicans to “speak now or forever hold your peace” at the closed-door meeting is likely to be intense, perhaps splintering any movement to challenge Boehner on the floor.
Boehner allies also scoff at the notion that dozens of members are already prepared to vote against him.
If Boehner does decide to leave, it would be extremely difficult for a challenger to keep Cantor from wielding the Speaker's gavel.
There are significant advantages built into the leadership office structure. Boehner, Cantor, and Whip Kevin McCarthy all have “member services” directors whose job it is to maintain goodwill with members of the GOP conference. They each maintain a sophisticated record of their standing with every member, making it easier to see the political landscape. Not to mention, the position affords leaders the opportunity to dole many more favors than a rank-and-file member would be able to.
Cantor has been keeping up an intense fundraising schedule for years, traveling anywhere and everywhere to help GOP candidates raise cash. In February, for example, he traveled to an extremely rural part of eastern North Carolina for David Rouzer, a GOP candidate taking on Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre. It was his second trip there.
Many lawmakers say Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is the most credible threat to challenge Cantor if Boehner does leave. The two recently clashed over a flood insurance bill, with Cantor partnering with Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters to yank the legislation out of Hensarling's committee, enraging many conservatives.
Adding insult to injury, one week before Cantor ripped the bill from Hensarling's hands, the Texan had dropped a $1 million donation to the National Republican Congressional Committee. The Cantor lieutenant notes that a sizable bloc of Republicans from regions of the country that have had flood problems were getting restive and out of control, which drove the decision to strike a deal with the Democrats.
The pattern of Cantor big footing Hensarling could easily repeat itself on other significant bills that are currently locked in the Financial Services Committee – like reauthorization of the Export-Import bank and the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act.
Hensarling has been coy about his intentions. But those who worked with him closely in his last stint in leadership – as GOP conference chair – say he appeared outwardly to hate it. He's also supremely cautious – maybe too much so.
Conservatives are also pushing former Republican Study Committee Chair Jim Jordan to give leadership a serious thought, but sources describe the Ohio Republican as having to be “dragged kicking and screaming” into it. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia is also said to be interested.
If Cantor is strong enough to prevent even a challenge, that could create pressure on him to help put a strong conservative in one of the lower leadership positions.
McCarthy would presumably move up the ladder with Cantor. But one scenario that comes up in discussions is current RSC Chair Steve Scalise or another conservative becoming Whip rather than GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers or chief deputy whip Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL). Sources say Scalise is intrigued by the possibility.
Of particular worry for Roskam and McMorris Rodgers would be if Cantor gave his blessing to a conservative for the post in a bid to address the right-wing angst about him.