GOP's John Boehner myth: The truth behind the quest for a "more conservative" Speaker

Boehner and his allies are being extra careful ahead of the next speaker election. They needn't worry too much

Published May 29, 2014 5:15PM (EDT)

John Boehner                                      (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The last time something resembling a coup against John Boehner's speakership went down, it really went down -- as in, failed spectacularly and hilariously. That was at the beginning of the current Congress, in January 2013.

Still, Boehner only narrowly maintained his position, and according to Politico's Jake Sherman, that rattled the speaker and his allies. And so they're already prepping for battle ahead of next year's speaker election. It should come as a delight, or at least a relief, to all fans of basic political competence to see that the previously wimpy Boehner will finally be willing to utilize all the powers available to him (threats!) to maintain order over his conference.

A group of his closest allies — including fellow Ohio Republicans like Pat Tiberi — are discussing tactics such as trying to change GOP Conference rules to punish members who do not support the party’s nominee during a floor vote. A lawmaker who bucks the Republicans’ choice for speaker could lose committee assignments — or worse. Boehner’s allies have already stripped some Republicans of their committee assignments for straying too far from the team.

In a sign of force, some of Boehner’s friends are considering releasing a letter with the names of several dozen GOP lawmakers pledging to vote for no one else besides the speaker — making the election of a more conservative rival logistically impossible.

All well and good as far as added safety measures go. Nevertheless, the most powerful force keeping John Boehner in place as speaker hasn't changed: the awful nature of lording over this current batch of House Republicans, something that a "more conservative" speaker couldn't manage much differently.

What have been John Boehner's heresies against right-wing true believership during his tenure? It's hard to find them. He's allowed his conference to vote to repeal Obamacare every other day or so. He's brought the Paul Ryan budget up for a vote each year. He hasn't brought up the Senate-passed immigration reform bill. He hasn't cut a "grand bargain" with President Obama. Approximately zero of the White House or the Democratic leadership's policy priorities have been pushed in the House by Speaker John Boehner.

What is the problem, then? Well, Boehner has consistently brought hikes to the debt ceiling to the floor, typically at the last minute, after months of posturing and idle extortion threats. He has also brought government funding measures to the floor, after the same torturous process.

A "more conservative" speaker wouldn't be able to do things any differently. There's only so much agency available to a speaker in those situations. Say Rep. Jeb Hensarling, one of the "more conservative" options being floated around in right-wing circles, were to take the job. Would he allow the U.S. to arbitrarily default on its debt and destroy the global economy? Would he allow the government to be shut down until President Obama agrees to sign a repeal of his signature healthcare law? It's easy to talk a big game from the sidelines when someone else is speaker. But when you're in that position, you realize you have no choice but to not destroy the world, and with it, what little sliver remains of the Republican Party's reputation for competence. To be the leader over this batch of hot-blooded House Republicans is to be hated automatically for the choices you're required to make, no matter how much of a Real Conservative you may be.

The one thing that could threaten Boehner's chances for survival is if he decides, in the ~10-second window that remains, to work to pass comprehensive immigration reform -- including some form of "amnesty." Here he does have some agency: The global economy is not going to explode and the government is not going to shut down if he decides to continue ignoring the issue. This is one of many reasons why he's not likely to do it. But in the off-chance that he does? Then let's just say it's a smart thing for him and his allies to be drawing up this survival plan.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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