A History of Conservative Revolts Against John Boehner

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WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 03:  Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) holds the gavel during the first session of the 113th Congress in the House Chambers January 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. House Speaker Boehner was re-elected as Speaker and presided over the swearing in of the newly elected members of the 113th Congress.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Photo: Mark Wilson/2013 Getty Images

On Tuesday afternoon John Boehner won reelection to a third term as speaker of the House and simultaneously earned himself a sad footnote in the history books. Twenty-five House Republicans voted against him, which is the most opposition in a speaker election since 1923, according to The Wall Street Journal. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t appear to faze Boehner. As shown below, throughout his speakership Boehner has been routinely humiliated and challenged by members of his own party, who say he’s too quick to deal with Democrats. But there are also many who argue he’s doing the best he can to hold together a deeply divided party. The last time Boehner nearly lost his speakership, Republican representative Steven LaTourette said firing him would be “like saying the superintendent of an insane asylum should be discharged because he couldn’t control the crazy people.”

July 2011: Conservatives let Boehner’s debt-ceiling legislation flop.
While Congress eventually reached a deal that prevented the United States from facing a debt default for the first time, the process was brutal for Boehner. His weeks-long effort to strike a “grand bargain” with the White House failed, and the speaker had to delay votes on his debt-reduction bill twice. Boehner was forced to quickly rewrite his proposal after the Congressional Budget Office concluded it wouldn’t cut as much spending as promised. With some “speculating that Boehner’s Speakership [was] on the line” just seven months after he assumed the position, according to the Hill, the vote had to be postponed because there weren’t enough Republican votes to pass the legislation.

After Boehner made modifications to appease tea-party members, the bill narrowly passed in the House, only to be blocked by Senate Democrats. Boehner didn’t do a very good job of hiding his feelings in his response from the House floor.

December 2012: House Republicans abandon Boehner during fiscal cliff negotiations.
Boehner suffered another embarrassing public defeat in December 2012, when conservative Republicans refused to support his plan to avert the fiscal cliff. The speaker’s “Plan B” would have extended the Bush tax cuts for Americans with incomes under $1 million, rather than $250,000 as the White House wanted. The plan was intended to strengthen Boehner’s hand in negotiations with Democrats, but instead Republicans revolted against it.

While Boehner claimed the lack of support from his caucus was really about members, “dealing with the perception that someone might accuse them of raising taxes,” he still took the loss hard. In a Wall Street Journal interview he admitted to cursing out Harry Reid just outside the Oval Office, and declared, “I need this job like I need a hole in the head.”

January 2013: Boehner faces his first coup attempt.
After the fiscal cliff fiasco, conservative pundits launched an effort to “fire Boehner” (it even had its own hashtag). There were reports of a secret plot among House Republicans to unseat the speaker, and Boehner came perilously close to losing his job. While he won all 241 GOP votes two years earlier, this time 12 Republicans voted for someone else or abstained. Had 17 members failed to vote for Boehner, there would have been a second ballot, and presumably more conservatives would have defected.

The rogue Republicans’ biggest problem was that they couldn’t find anyone willing to run against Boehner, despite efforts to recruit Eric Cantor. The group also did a poor job of hiding their coup attempt. They were caught openly plotting at the Capitol Hill bar Bullfeathers, and a Politico photographer caught Representative Tim Huelskamp brandishing an iPad on the House floor that showed a list of potential defectors they were hoping to rally to their cause. The document was titled “You would be fired if this goes out.”

Half of those on the list voted for Boehner, and it was reported later that the coup was called off just 30 minutes before the vote when one member pulled out, leaving the group short of their 25-member target.

Summer 2013: Boehner is threatened over bipartisan immigration reform.
As the Senate prepared to pass an immigration reform bill, it was reported that Boehner was privately making plans to move the bill through the House. He even hinted in an interview that he was willing to abandon the “Hastert Rule,” allowing a vote even if the bill wasn’t supported by a majority of Republicans.

Seventy Republicans set the stage for a behind-the-scenes showdown with Boehner, signing a petition calling for a GOP conference meeting on the legislation. Some even openly called for Boehner’s ouster if he abandoned the Hastert Rule. “I would consider that a betrayal of the Republican members of the House and a betrayal of the Republicans throughout the country,” said Representative Dana Rohrabacher. “If Boehner moves forward … and permits this to come to a vote even though the majority of Republicans in the House — and that’s if they do — oppose what’s coming to a vote, he should be removed as Speaker.”

A few months later, Boehner declared, “We have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill.”

July 2014: Ted Cruz foils Boehner’s attempt to pass a border security bill.
Before Congress left for a long summer recess, Boehner hoped to pass an extremely right-wing bill to address the immigration crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, which would allow Republicans to blame the Senate for failing to pass it. Instead, Senator Ted Cruz met with a group of conservative House Republicans and convinced them to vote against it. Saying they were “not even close” to the number of votes they needed, the speaker pulled it minutes before a scheduled vote in the House.

A statement from Boehner’s office blamed the incident on the White House, saying, “There are numerous steps the president can and should be taking right now, without the need for congressional action,” to address the crisis — though the House had just filed a lawsuit against Obama for acting independently of Congress.

January 2015: Boehner beats back another attempted coup.
Earlier this week, Republican congressmen Ted Yoho and Louis Gohmert put their names forward as potential Boehner replacements. While there was almost no chance that they would be elected speaker, their revolt did lead to Boehner getting more than twice as many opposition votes as he did two years ago. He was supported by 216 House Republicans, but 24 voted for other candidates and one voted “present.” Boehner might have lost even more votes if there weren’t so many absences. Due to bad weather, New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s funeral, and the resignation of Representative Michael Grimm, only 408 members voted.

After the vote, Republican representative Mick Mulvaney released a statement saying he didn’t participate in this year’s coup attempt because the last one didn’t work. He explained:

First, I learned two years ago that people lie about how they are going to vote.  And you cannot go into this kind of fight with people you do not trust. We walked onto the floor two years ago with signed pledges – handwritten promises – from more than enough people to deny Boehner his job.  But when it came time to vote, almost half of those people changed their minds – including some of those who voted against Boehner today.  Fool me once, shame on you… Today was even worse: there were never enough votes to oust Boehner to begin with.   On top of that, some people who had publicly said in the past that they wouldn’t vote for Boehner did just that. This was an effort driven as much by talk radio as by a thoughtful and principled effort to make a change. It was poorly considered and poorly executed, and I learned first-hand that is no way to fight a battle.   This coup today was bound to fail. 

He suggested that, once again, Boehner survived because there were simply no credible candidates willing to fight him for his job. “The truth is, there was no conservative who could beat John Boehner. Period,” he said. “People can ignore that, or they can wish it away, but that is reality.”

Conservative Revolts Against Boehner: A History