Handicapping a Republican Overthrow of Speaker Boehner



Josh Huder | October 16, 2013

As the House prepares to vote for another CR/debt deal without a majority of Republicans, some wonder whether this is the end of the line for Speaker Boehner. However, given the dynamics in the House, a mid-session overthrow is very unlikely, though not impossible.

For one, a speaker has never been overthrown in the middle of a Congress. It is possible to overthrow a Speaker in the middle of a session as my colleague, Ken Gold, explained. What is not clear is how any faction of the Republican Party could realistically remove Boehner. For one, we have to assume that the Speaker has at least 30 members that would oppose an overthrow, which is a pretty safe assumption. If the Republican Party was uniformly opposed to Boehner, this discussion wouldn’t be necessary. The overthrow would have already happened. Assuming that Boehner has at least modest support within his caucus, any overthrow attempt would need votes from Republican and Democrats.

Therefore, the question is: which faction within the Republican Party could make a legitimate attempt? After the last two weeks a revolt may make this appear likely. However, the conference is split in a way that is not conducive to overthrow. Below I run through the most likely scenarios for an overthrow followed by a brief description why each strategy is either not politically realistic or unrewarding.

Most Obvious Overthrow Faction: The Hardliners

If any group in the Republican caucus was going to revolt, it would be the hardline Tea Party faction. Hardliners are most upset with Boehner and have been since the 112th Congress. Not only were they the House architects of the Obamacare strategy during the CR, they actively thwarted several leadership plans to counter the Senate and President. According to Robert Costa, roughly 30 to 40 members in the hardline wing of the caucus, at best, do not have allegiance to Boehner and at worst, have become reflexively anti-Boehner. Not to mention, this same group of members already tried to overthrow Boehner at the beginning of the 113th Congress. If an overthrow was attempted, these would be the guys and gals most likely to orchestrate it.

However, this faction runs into a political problem immediately. They would not be able to attract the Democratic votes necessary complete the overthrow. For one, any replacement the Tea Party would want would be infinitely less palatable to Democrats than Boehner. It would be a stretch for even the most moderate Democrat to support a Tea Party backed speaker. It simply doesn’t make sense for Democrats to create a bipartisan coalition that does not further their goals. In other words, the most “likely” overthrow scenario falls apart before negotiations even begin.

Second Most Obvious Overthrow Faction: The Middle

The most interesting “faction,” if they can be considered that, is the group between the hardliners and the moderates. This group is collection of members pressured by hard right and members who are more conservative than the moderates. This “group” has the largest numbers but is not cohesive enough to be identified as a group, per say. At best, they are sort of amorphous, moving between factions at different times to suit their goals. Nonetheless, assuming they saw the collective light and made a power play for the leadership, how would it play out?

Put simply, this group falls into the same dilemma as the first. They are close enough to the Tea Party to bring them along in the revolt, but far enough from Democrats that they would not support the candidate chosen to replace Boehner. Aside from the fact that this group has zero organizational or coordinating structure, without moderate support to make this a unified Republican coup – which as I sketch out below is unlikely – this scenario is just as unlikely as the first.

Third Most Obvious Overthrow Faction: Moderates

A moderate overthrow is the third most likely scenario; however, it may also be the most surprising if it came to fruition. Moderates have largely supported Boehner throughout his tenure. Question is, have Boehner’s failed strategies lost the confidence of his strongest constituency? My hunch is no. But even assuming this has happened, an overthrow is unlikely at best.

What is interesting is moderate Republicans do not have the same political problem as the hardline Republicans. There is a real scenario where moderates could attract Democrats to their cause. For example, Democrats may be willing to go along with Republicans in the hope that they gain some concessions or promises from the new leader (immigration, VRA, etc).

However, the bigger question is: why would moderates do it? Moderates would want to replace a moderate with another moderate. It is unlikely that after a serious blow to the party image, they would suddenly hop on the Tea Party Express. So the most likely candidates would come from the existing leadership. Cantor, who given his position as Majority Leader, likely has the most votes in hand. However, it’s not clear moderates trust Cantor since he’s waffled on several leadership proposals over the past year. McCarthy may be a suitable replacement, moving up from the Whip’s office, but appears uninterested (if he is interested in the job, he’s done a good job of hiding it from public view).

While moderate Republicans may want another leader, the return on their investment is so low it’s not worth attempting. Throwing the party into absolute turmoil in order to replace one moderate with another likely does not seem worthwhile to most, if not all, in this camp. If they were unwilling to sign a discharge petition or break party ranks on the previous question, it is also unlikely they will stir revolt against their leader. In all likelihood, they’ll ride this out until the House is forced to elect another Speaker in the 114th. And even then, this group may be the most likely to view Boehner as the best option.

The Never Happening Scenario: New Speaker Pelosi

This section is more for debunking purposes than anything else. In no instance would Republicans throw out a Republican and elect a Democrat. None. It is not likely and it would not happen. No matter how moderate the Republican is, they would not elect a Democrat to lead the chamber. Revolting against your leader is one thing. Electing a leader from the opposite party is another entirely.

Of course, all of this could change. However, the faction with the most incentive to overthrow Boehner is also the least likely to secure the votes necessary to do it. With that in mind, it is more likely that Boehner resigns after his tenure closes on the 113th than for him to be thrown out.


Huder_100x100Josh Huder is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute.

Follow him on Twitter at @JoshHuder


Categories: 113th Congress, Updates