WASHINGTON — Democrats and some conservatives are dreaming this weekend of a late Christmas present: House Speaker John Boehner's head on a platter.
But that probably won't happen, for several reasons. First, legislative coups are risky, and the fiscal cliff talks are still playing out. Meanwhile, Boehner is personally popular. The opposition has no clear leader.
But perhaps most important of all, it's not clear that it's in the interest of the conservative Republicans leading talk of the coup to dive into the messy business of making deals with a Democratic president and Senate, or assuming responsibility for the 2014 midterm elections.
"I'm not," Boehner said Friday, asked whether he was worried about his speakership following the collapse of his attempt to rally Republicans around an alternative tax increase plan to President Obama's. "They weren’t taking that out on me — they were dealing with the perception that they were raising taxes," he said.
In theory, a coup is possible: many conservatives would gleefully support such a move — and few Democrats would shed a tear. And it would only take a handful of his conference to throw the election for speaker into chaos. As National Journal points out, it would take just 17 Republicans voting for anyone other than Boehner to throw the election into chaos.
But while he may have lost control of his conference, Boehner has a lot of reasons to not be worried about actually losing the speakership when the House convenes January 3rd to hold elections.
First of all, coups rarely work. Just ask Boehner, who played a role in a failed 1997 coup to replace then Speaker Newt Gingrich with former Rep. Bill Paxon.
Republicans were growing unhappy with Gingrich, who was dogged by ethics problems and marched his party headlong into the government shutdown disaster, and Boehner, Paxon, former Majority Leader Dick Armey and others began plotting to push the Georgia Republican out.
Armey ultimately got cold feet and sold his co-conspirators down the river, dooming their uprising before it had begun. But even if Armey hadn’t turned his colleagues in, it’s unclear that their plot would have worked. And it’s not like Boehner isn’t aware of the challenges — conservative media outlets like Breitbart.com and National Review, as well as activists are openly discussing strategies for a coup, which gives him plenty of time to shore up support and lay his own plans.
Boehner also remains extremely popular personally within his conference. Numerous Republicans who opposed his Plan B and were prepared to vote against it have said they still support him.
Personality goes a long way in the House, and personal relationships, even in the new era of hyper-partisanship, remain one of the key lubricants of the legislative system. If Gingrich couldn’t be overthrown the idea that Boehner could be seems implausible.
And while its never too early to begin planning your coup d’etat, the next 10 days will go a long way towards determining whether a revolt has any chance.
For all the talk about how the fiscal cliff has crippled Boehner and the collapse of his plan B marks the beginning of the end of his speakership, the reality is there’s still more than a week left before the nation's budget goes over the cliff.
That’s more than enough time for a deal of some sort to get done, and until the contours of that agreement are known its too early to say whether it could hurt or help the chances of a coup. After all, if the deal is a painful one and Republicans can hang it on Democrats’ necks, it could defuse much of the anger at Boehner.
Of course, if Boehner ultimately gives in to Obama or the final agreement ends up giving Democrats a major boost politically, it could end up giving opponents a new life. But those are major ifs.
And even if a coup does become an option enough members are willing to consider, one big hurdle for anti-Boehner forces will be the lack of a viable challenger.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, on the surface at least, would appear to be a potential coup leader. After all, he’s the second ranking member of the conference, he has a power base within the conference and a national profile.
But the reality is the chances of Cantor leading a coup, or even being drafted as an alternative to Boehner if the speakership election is drawn out, is remote. While Cantor is very conservative and has used his position as Majority Leader to schedule numerous votes on social and fiscal conservative priorities, the fact that he’s in Boehner’s leadership circle has meant many outside activists don’t trust him to be the uncompromising defender of their ideology they’re looking for.
And even beyond that, Cantor has given no indication he’s remotely interested in being a part of a coup, in fact far from it. Cantor notably went with Boehner to his press conference Friday — his presence was unannounced beforehand — a move widely seen as a show of solidarity by House Republicans.
Other members of leadership are even less likely to take part in a coup or support one, including Rep. Paul Ryan, who in theory could present the biggest challenge to Boehner’s leadership.
Ryan remains very close to Boehner personally, and he is not the sort to turn his back on a friend. He’s also never given any indication that he has his sights set on the speakership. And Ryan himself is now tied directly to the fiscal cliff debacle after he agreed to manage the spending cuts portion on the floor.
Some conservatives have floated Rep. Tom Price’s name as a possible coup leader. Price’s conservative credentials are beyond reproach, and he clearly has aspirations to leadership, as evidenced by his bid against Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers for Conference Chair.
But the fact is, Price lost that election and it is unclear why he would fair better against a sitting Speaker.
Rep. Jim Jordan, who heads up the Republican Study Committee, and other conservatives have also been mentioned, but none of them seem to have the wattage needed to unseat Boehner.
And there is, finally, the simple practical reality that either on the House floor or during a closed door conference meeting, in order for a coup to work, enough members will have to come out in opposition to Boehner. That is a daunting threshold — because if rebels don’t win, the repercussions will likely be long lasting and severe.
None of this is to say a coup, and a successful one, is impossible. Boehner is clearly weakened by the last week’s events, his conference has become more, not less, conservative. And there are a number of scenarios under which Boehner is forced out of leadership.
But consider this: a weakened Boehner in the speakership may be exactly what conservatives ultimately want. Having one of their own atop the House puts the burden on them to actually govern, find common ground with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama, and marshal an effective electoral strategy for the 2014 midterm elections.
Remaining on the outside of a leadership team that is not in firm control of the House conference gives movement leaders the freedom to operate and push their agenda with none of the responsibilities that come with actually being in charge.
John Stanton is a senior national correspondent for BuzzFeed News. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
Contact John Stanton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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