It was a more stinging rebuke than expected. On the first day of the 114th Congress on Tuesday, when House Republicans were celebrating their biggest majority since the Great Depression, 25 hard-line Republicans failed to support John Boehner of Ohio for his third term as speaker.
It was more than twice the defections he saw in his previous election in 2013 – and the largest number of in-party desertions in the modern history of voting for the speakership.
The blow wasn’t enough to knock Congressman Boehner from his perch: He still won a majority of the votes of those cast, 216 out of 408. It was, though, an “embarrassment” and an unnecessary and ill-timed sign of “disloyalty,” Boehner’s supporters said.
Just how much of a problem does this rebellion pose for the speaker – and for his pledge to show that Republicans can govern?
As he said in a short speech after the vote, he wants to “prove the skeptics wrong” and show Americans that “the logjam is breaking.”
By the raw numbers, 25 is not enough to trip up the GOP leadership when it comes to passing legislation. With their new majority of 246 seats, Republicans can afford to lose 28 of their own and still reach the 218 votes needed to pass a bill without having to round up Democratic votes. But even with a larger majority, Boehner simply may not have enough votes on certain issues.
Not all of the usual hardliners took part in today’s bold attempt to force balloting to a second round. These representatives may have feared that without a clear compromise candidate, a second round would have triggered stalemate and chaos. Still, those hard-liners who stayed out of this fight could easily rejoin some future legislative battle, thereby forcing Boehner’s hand.
“The rebels are certainly not a dominant faction, but they’re large enough to cause Boehner trouble,” says John Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Political analysts and House Republicans say Boehner’s options for managing his right flank are limited. As Mr. Pitney puts it, this may end up being a “mix and match speakership,” with Boehner relying sometimes on hard-liners, and sometimes on Democrats, as he did at the end of last year in passing a budget.
One traditional way to deal with internal party division is through carrots and sticks. But one big juicy carrot – earmarks – no longer exists. Another – legislative access to the floor – is not so enticing for a group that appears more interested in stopping things than the give-and-take of legislating.
Tea party darling Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas complained of “retaliation” by the leadership on Tuesday, telling reporters that he was denied the chairmanship of a subcommittee after he tweeted that he was not going to support Boehner.
Like others in the “hell no” caucus that voted against the Ohioan, he lamented that the speaker promised a more open process in the House – but did the opposite when presenting members with a massive budget in December that had been negotiated behind closed doors and that no one had time to fully read.
Said Representative Huelskamp: “I fear they’re going to shut the process down and have less debate and less opportunities for conservatives than for everybody else.”
Reprimanding the rebels might be counterproductive. That’s a “tough call” for the speaker because he will need hard-liners for other votes, commented former Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia, a Boehner supporter.
And yet, accommodation of hardliners has proved to have limitations as well.
During last year’s lame-duck session, for example, the GOP leadership allowed hard-liner Ted Yoho (R) of Florida to introduce legislation that nullified the president’s recent executive action on immigration. It passed in the House, but given the Democrat-controlled Senate – and a sure veto from the president – that was the end of it.
Boehner’s overture, however, did not satisfy Mr. Yoho. On Tuesday, he voted against the speaker – and for himself for the job.
As Mr. Davis put it, some hardliners are “encourageable,” while others “will never be there on any votes.”
Indeed, they only hurt themselves when they refuse to bend, because then the leadership is forced to work with Democrats on “a less palatable package,” he said. He cited the December budget, rejected by 67 Republicans, but rescued by 57 Democrats.
It is the fiscal issues – the appropriations process, the upcoming expiration of the nation’s debt limit, and a spending showdown at the Department of Homeland Security over immigration – where Boehner can expect the most pushback from his right flank, say House Republicans.
Those kinds of issues, as well as the GOP's stated bipartisan goals in areas such as trade and taxes, will leave Boehner little choice but to work with Democrats. But that, too, presents its challenges. The speaker is going to have to balance these things as he takes a mix-and-match approach, weighing which is most costly: working across the aisle or appeasing his right flank.
As Pitney says, “The calculation the speaker will always have in the months ahead is which group is asking too high a price – the Democrats, or the hard cases in his own party?”