House Conservatives Plotting Against Boehner Again?

Once again, the Tea Party wing of the GOP is talking about taking out John Boehner.


To put it mildly, John Boehner has not had the easiest time as Speaker of the House. Nearly as soon as Republicans won control of the body in the 2010 elections, it became clear that Boehner, along with his fellow members of the House GOP Leadership Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, would have a difficult time holding the freshmen that took office in January 2011 in line thanks in large part due to the sway that Tea Party groups held over them. Indeed, it quickly became clear that the so-called “Tea Party Caucus” inside the House GOP included not only those elected in 2010 but also many long-standing members who quickly came to realize that bowing to the outside pressure of Tea Party groups was the best way to ensure they wouldn’t face a challenge from the right in the next primary. Because of this, Boehner has had great difficulty in steering House Republicans and has found himself forced to take hard-line positions that, quite honestly, he must know cannot succeed in negotiations with the President and the Democratic controlled Senate. This manifested itself most prominently, of course, in the bizarre back and forth surrounding the Debt Ceiling showdown during the summer of 2011 and, of course, the government shutdown last October that was made inevitable that Boehner himself had said publicly could never possibly succeed. Additionally, Boehner and the rest of the House Leadership have pursued a legislative agenda that could have been written by the Tea Party, highlighted of course by the more than 50 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act that, in the end, amounted to absolutely nothing.

Despite the fact that Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy have given the hard right wing of the party everything they wanted, though, they have all lived with targets on their back, with the biggest target being on Boehner himself. When the 113th Congress convened in January 2013, there were rumors that an effort would be made at that time to block Boehner’s re-election as Speaker and, while that effort failed to materialize, it was clearer than ever at that point just how little regard the Tea Party has for the Republican Speak of the House. Now, National Journal’s Tim Alberta reports on another plot to unseat the Speaker after the 2014 midterms:

Several dozen frustrated House conservatives are scheming to infiltrate the GOP leadership next year—possibly by forcing Speaker John Boehner to step aside immediately after November’s midterm elections.

The conservatives’ exasperation with leadership is well known. And now, in discreet dinners at the Capitol Hill Club and in winding, hypothetical-laced email chains, they’re trying to figure out what to do about it. Some say it’s enough to coalesce behind—and start whipping votes for—a single conservative leadership candidate. Others want to cut a deal with Majority Leader Eric Cantor: We’ll back you for speaker if you promise to bring aboard a conservative lieutenant.

But there’s a more audacious option on the table, according to conservatives involved in the deliberations. They say between 40 and 50 members have already committed verbally to electing a new speaker. If those numbers hold, organizers say, they could force Boehner to step aside as speaker in late November, when the incoming GOP conference meets for the first time, by showing him that he won’t have the votes to be reelected in January.

The masterminds of this mutiny are trying to stay in the shadows for as long as possible to avoid putting a target on their backs. But one Republican said the “nucleus”of the rebellion can be found inside the House Liberty Caucus, of which he and his comrades are members. This is not surprising, considering that some of the key players in that group—Justin Amash of Michigan, Raul Labrador of Idaho, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky—were among the 12 Republicans who refused to back Boehner’s reelection in January 2013.

Amash, chairman of the Liberty Caucus, warned at the time that there would be a “larger rebellion” down the road if Boehner’s leadership team did not bring conservatives into the fold. Such an insurrection never materialized, however, as Boehner deftly navigated a series of challenges last year and wound up winning over some of the malcontents.

But conservatives, increasingly irritated with what they see as a cautious approach taken by their leadership, are now adamant that Boehner’s tenure should expire with this Congress.

“There are no big ideas coming out of the conference. Our leadership expects to coast through this election by banking on everyone’s hatred for Obamacare,” said one Republican lawmaker who is organizing the rebellion. “There’s nothing big being done. We’re reshuffling chairs on the Titanic.”

Boehner isn’t the only one to raise the ire of this group. As the article notes, both Majority Leader Cantor and Majority Whip McCarthy are increasingly finding themselves with Tea Party targets on their pack. So even if Boehner were somehow ousted or decided to step aside, it’s unclear what would happen to the battle that would inevitably occur inside the GOP Caucus regarding the selection of new leadership.

It all sounds very threatening, and I’m sure there will be plenty written about the battles inside the House GOP Caucus between now and next January. However, it strikes me that Ryan Cooper is largely correct that there’s little chance that this effort would succeed:

Notice that the report contains almost no specifics about what the ultras want to actually do. They’re mad at Cantor for passing a “doc fix” bill by voice vote — a routine measure that in the pre-Tea Party days used to pass without a fuss — but they don’t outline what they would have done themselves. If history is any guide, they would have demanded something so cartoonishly extreme that it could never possibly pass the Senate or be signed by the president, then voted against it anyway for not being extreme enough.

Why pass a doomed-to-fail bill anyway? To “send a message,” or something, which is why the House has passed 50 pointless repeals of ObamaCare.

Indeed, the hapless campaign to oust Boehner reeks of a politics obsessed with slights and symbolism. This obsession to the almost total exclusion of a substantive agenda has become the signature trait of House ultras, which means the leadership has no choice but to treat them like cake-addled five-year-olds.

To be fair, the ultras have gotten quite a bit of what they say they want. But their aggression has also repeatedly come back to bite them. Twice in a row they’ve choked away control of the Senate by letting bug-eyed weirdos win state primaries. And lack of unity seriously undermines what power they do have, and has made Boehner possibly the weakest speaker of the House in American history.

The truth is that Boehner is probably the best speaker the ultras could reasonably ask for: he’s willing to indulge them to a seriously irresponsible degree, but not so much that they actually cause crippling damage to the nation. A true believer at the helm might actually allow the ultras to, say, default on the national debt for no reason.

Cooper’s last point is possibly the most important one. If someone other than John Boehner had been Speaker of the House for the past three years it is unlikely that the Tea Party crowd would find that things had turned out any better for them than they have. In large part, that’s because their complaints against Boehner, Cantor, and the other members of the leadership aren’t based on  anything they’ve actually done or failed to do but on the fact that the results haven’t turned out as perfectly as the Tea Party would like. The primary reason for that, of course, is that Republicans only control the House of Representatives and that anything that becomes law has to pass the Senate and be signed into law by the President. Since both of those parts of the government it is inevitable that what ends up passing isn’t going to please hardcore conservatives, and that would be the case regardless of who was sitting in the Speakers chair for the past 39 months. As for what might happen after the 2014 midterms, that is going to depend on whether or not the GOP gains controls the Senate and, even then, the ability of Republicans to accomplish anything will be limited by the fact that Barack Obama is going to be President until January 20, 2017. Indeed, regardless of who the Speaker is the period between the midterms and the Presidential election is likely to be one in which both parties lay groundwork for the 2016 campaign rather than getting anything of substance done. There’s no reason to think that the present House GOP Leadership would fall short in that task given their record since January 2011.

In the end, these efforts to unseat Boehner and the rest of the leadership reveal more about the Tea Party and the hardcore conservative wing of the Republican Party than anything else. Despite all of the evidence showing that Boehner, Cantor, et al have gone above and beyond the call of duty to give the Tea Party what it wants, they still aren’t happy. This establishes that they either aren’t interested in governing, or that they are simply incapable of doing what needs to be done to govern in an era of divided government in a pluralistic democratic republic. Then again, we kind of already knew that didn’t we?

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. al-Ameda says:

    It’s put up or shut up time in the House.
    Given the overall temperament and dyspeptic nature of House Republicans I would have thought that they would have voted Boehner out and Cantor or Ryan in some time ago. So far conservative activists have been able to avoid blame and responsibility for the fallout from their government shutdown and their two flirtations with default on government debt. Maybe they’re waiting to see if the Senate goes Republican and then make a ‘triumphant’ leadership change in the House?

  2. dazedandconfused says:

    Cantor would be the one with the lean and hungry look. Ryan, IMO, wants to be President and being Speaker of the House is the last thing he wants.

    A quibble about the use of “conservative”. They are radicals.

  3. Matt Bernius says:

    Like most populist conservative fantasies, the dream of replacing Boehner fractures the moment it hits the cold, hard facts.

    The only person positioned to potentially win is Cantor. And he’s not running unless he wants to split the party.

    Beyond that, there is no figure waiting in the wings who commands enough member loyalty to win.

  4. Pete S says:

    Boehner is probably safe if he wants to be. The Tea Party has given no indication that its members are capable of enough teamwork, compromise and strategic thinking to replace him.
    And I would think that if this effort is taking place in “discreet dinners at the Capitol Hill Club” it might just be time for the Liberty Caucus to stop claiming to be outsiders.

  5. JR says:

    Things were going too well for Republicans the last few months. They started rising in polls and are poised to retake the Senate.

    Feeling confident, it looks like its time to start to a civil war again in the party. Let’s also get some more primary contenders to make horrible comments on gays, women, and immigrants. Well, I guess there’s always 2020.

  6. superdestroyer says:

    The problem is that Boehner has zero leadership skills. The problem is that there is no other Republican in the House that has any more leadership skills. This more conservative Republican are frustrated that they cannot get any of their agenda through but a change in leadership will have any effect on policy or governance,

    I would suggest that whatever remains of the Republicans get used to the idea that they are irrelevant to policy or governance and will have no say in what Congress or the executive branch does.

  7. grumpy realist says:

    These Tea Party plotters remind me of Darwin Award winners.

  8. Tillman says:

    C’mooooon! Do eeeeeet!

    I’m sorry, I want there to be an honest-to-God intra-party revolution here. Maybe losing spectacularly will force these dudes to reevaluate their priorities. Or maybe they’ll win, and America will see the crazy they’ve been electing face-to-face. Either way, it’s win-win.

  9. James Pearce says:

    Despite all of the evidence showing that Boehner, Cantor, et al have gone above and beyond the call of duty to give the Tea Party what it wants, they still aren’t happy.

    Sometimes you have to let the crying baby…just cry.

    To paraphrase Marcellus Wallace: The Tea Party only hurts. It never helps.

  10. Blue Galangal says:

    @Matt Bernius: “Beyond that, there is no figure waiting in the wings who commands enough member loyalty to win.”

    Ted Cruz?

    (Sadly I’m only half joking, given the general level of constitutional knowledge among this crop of congresspersons.)

  11. Matt Bernius says:

    @Blue Galangal:
    I hope part of that joke is tied into the fact that Cruz is a *Senator* and therefore not in the running for Speaker of the *House*. ;P

  12. Ken says:

    @superdestroyer: I would suggest that whatever remains of the Republicans get used to the idea that they are irrelevant to policy or governance and will have no say in what Congress or the executive branch does.

    So you think that we are doomed to a One Party State? Fascinating. Tell us more about this novel idea of yours

  13. ernieyeball says:

    @Ken: For your amusement…
    Jump in the WABAC Machine and travel to Thur. Feb 20th of this year.

    Steven L. Taylor says:
    Friday, February 21, 2014 at 08:04
    @Paludicola: You are likely not familiar with superdestroyer, as he has a mono-mania on this topic that is very much based in his views on race.
    We could be talking about the relative merits of Chicago style v. New York style pizza, and he would turn it into some diatribe about demographics and the coming one-party state.

    There are more SD rants on that thread and others but Mr. Taylor sums it up as nice as pie.

  14. superdestroyer says:


    What is amazing is that almost every day political blogs and websites post stories about the failures, mistakes, and stupidity of the Republicans but those sites refuse to think or write about the policy and governance implications. Almost every day, political websites are writing about the demographic changes of the voting population but only want to analyze the trends in terms of elections and not in terms of policy or governance.

    In the last couple of weeks, Asian and Latino Democrats in California were arguing over whether to bring back affirmative action. Yet, only a few obscure writers have mentioned that impact of California being a one party state.

    What is more likely in the future, that the Republicans regain some level of relevance in politics and governance in the U.S. or that the current demographic trends continue and politics become ethnic groups fighting over government programs that benefit their in group while harming some other group?

    What is amazing is how many wonks, pundits, and wannabes want to focus on irrelevant Republicans instead of focusing on policy or governance. A cynic would believe that too many leader on the left of using the focus on the irrelevant Repubicans to distract from any meaningful discussion on policy, governance, or long term trends in the U.S.