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Conservatives Want to Oust John Boehner, But Have No Clue How

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It seems like every time the House leadership crosses the right wing of the Republican conference, rank-and-file conservatives respond by contemplating a coup to deny John Boehner the speakership next year. 

A few days ago, leaders did an end run around the hardliners to jam a Medicare "doc fix" bill through the House. Now the hardliners are furious. And thanks to Tim Alberta's latest piece for National Journal, we know that they're being more public about a still-marinating plan to oust Boehner in January.  

From my own reporting, I can confirm that these conversations are ongoing, and not even particularly hushed. I can also confirm that the rebel faction (such as it is) hasn't found an heir apparent. It's not even clear anyone who could feasibly be an heir apparent would want to participate in the rebellion. That doesn't mean a dedicated group of disaffected conservatives couldn't deny Boehner the speakership. But without a prospective replacement, it's the kind of bluff Boehner could probably call if he wanted to.  

If you'd like a detailed explanation of the speakership election, the Congressional Research Service has you covered. The short version is that a speaker-hopeful needs to win a majority of voting members to actually claim the gavel. And given the GOP's fairly narrow margin in the House right now (a margin that will presumably remain narrow after the election) it wouldn't take many dissidents to deny Boehner a majority. 

But unless a popular figure with real stature in the conference (someone like Paul Ryan, for instance) eventually steps up, the threat suffers from an "and then what?!" problem. The hope I guess is that Boehner would be too embarrassed to go to the floor without enough support to win the election, and step aside voluntarily. And maybe he would! That's more or less what happened to Newt Gingrich in 1999. But if he were to call the conservatives' bluff and fall short of a majority in round one, the House would just keep voting until a victor emerged. And unless the hardliners were willing to team with Democrats and support someone more liberal than Boehner (SPOILER: that'll never happen) then Boehner would eventually come out on top. Even if he had to cut a deal with Dems to get them to abstain from voting. 

That's basically how the process works. I'm obviously spitballing here, but that's because the whole story is a war game at this point. Six months ago, conservatives were pretty happy with Boehner because he let them shut down the government. Six months from now, they might not be as furious at him as they are right now. If Republicans win seats in November, would the hardliners really have enough juice to depose him? If they lose a bunch of seats, would ousting him even be necessary? Things change. But unless and until some credible challenger comes out of the woodwork, these conservatives are basically telling Boehner "step aside, or else!" Or else what?