Hours after being undermined by his own conference, Speaker John A. Boehner confidently strode to the House floor on Friday, ascended to the rostrum and, gavel firmly in hand, ushered in a pro forma session.
The routine exercise held symbolism: damaged politically and hung out to dry by his members on Thursday night, the Ohio Republican is nonetheless in no imminent danger of losing his hold on the speakership.
Even his allies admit that Boehner’s stunning failure to find the votes for his “plan B” tax legislation was a major blow to his credibility, provoking befuddlement and even outrage from fellow Republicans.
But there is also considerable anger in the GOP conference directed at the conservative lawmakers that forced Boehner’s shocking defeat.
That fractured reaction — coupled with the lack of a plausible challenger — mean Boehner is unlikely to face any significant challenge to his position as speaker in the near term.
“These are people that, they don’t have a leader amongst them, and they don’t want to be led,” said a GOP member and Boehner loyalist. “He had probably 200 people lined up for him, for his position. And those 200 are pretty dad gum loyal to the speaker and pretty angry at that group.”
There is also the lack of a plausible challenger, something that has thwarted would-be conservative revolutionaries in the past.
Morton Blackwell who leads the weekly “Weyrich lunch,” of conservative strategy gatherings, said when Republicans won control of the House Majority in 2010, he urged Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., to challenge Boehner, but Pence declined. Pence last month won election to the Indiana governor’s mansion.
“I thought, and I think events have proved, that Mike Pence would have been a better speaker,” he said.
That’s not to say Boehner does not face any fallout. He damaged his credibility and leverage in fiscal cliff negotiations by announcing he would hold a vote, then pulling it at the last minute when he could not find the votes in his conference.
“There’s no question that, look, this is a disappointment, this is a blow,” said the member loyal to Boehner. “The folks that couldn’t see fit to help him in what was an extremely important vote for him and the entire team, it may not have been their intention to wound him politically, but they effectively have.”
Meanwhile, a minority of Republicans believes he does face real peril.
“It’s the beginning of the end for the current leadership team,” said a second GOP Member, who is a high profile leadership critic.
A GOP aide, and not to a conservative firebrand, said Boehner’s “speakership is on the line for sure. He took this deal on himself. They never told us what they were doing, they never had a messaging operation, and the rank and file at the end of the day is going to get the brunt of the blame. If I were [Majority Leader] Eric Cantor, I’d be making moves – lest he, too, get whacked in the process.”
Cantor and Boehner have largely put to rest the conflict between them that defined much of the first session of the 112th Congress. And when Boehner held a press conference Friday morning, the Virginia Republican was standing by his side the entire time.
“Cantor understands that as No. 2, his role is to support the speaker, and if you’re the No. 2 person and you’re not supporting the speaker, why would we promote you to the top spot?” said the first member. “Eric is also seeing how difficult these people are. He’s been at the leadership table a long time.”
Blackwell slammed Boehner’s gambit and warned the Ohio Republican against relying too heavily on Democrats to pass any fiscal cliff deal he negotiates with President Barack Obama.
“My hope would be that he would have learned his lesson and make peace and common cause with the grass-roots base of the party. If it doesn’t happen, I think we may break the Reagan coalition. And it will not be easy to recover from that,” Blackwell said.
Except that may be exactly what Boehner intends to do. The speaker’s allies see a silver lining in the episode: that the conservatives will learn to get in line. A GOP leadership aide said that when members have turned their back on the speaker, as they did during the debate over a payroll tax cut extension, they end up with significantly less Republican-friendly policy.
“When members don’t follow the strategic path that the speaker and leaders outline, the policy outcome is often worse as a result. It’s been a tough lesson to learn over the last two years, but these lessons actually strengthen the speaker’s standing among members, rather than weaken it,” the aide said.
Still, besides the ideological infighting, members expressed confusion about the strategy behind Boehner’s “plan B” gambit.
A key reason members resisted voting for the bill was that Republicans knew, and leadership acknowledged in closed-door meetings, that the legislation was meant to be a show of strength to boost leverage. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he would not take it up and Obama threatened a veto.
“I mean, Harry Reid’s already said if we pass this bill tonight, he’s not going to take it up. And the president would veto it anyway. So what’s the point, folks?” Rep. John Fleming, R-LA, asked Thursday night after the vote was pulled.
Other Republicans suggested Boehner may have been counting on some Democratic votes, only to find that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California led a united front against him.
Even some ardent Boehner defenders were flummoxed by the Ohio Republican’s decision to promise the bill would pass on Wednesday without any caveats. Cantor made the same vow early Thursday, heightening the expectations even more.
Boehner’s and Cantor’s public statements put GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy of California in a difficult position, and the statements were made when Boehner was in a position to know the bill was in trouble.
Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, had given his blessing to the bill, saying it was not a tax increase, as many on the right argued it was. But in a written statement released Friday, he was deliberate in not criticizing the more aggressive approaches of other right wing groups, such as Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth, who furiously opposed “plan B.”
“Free country (more or less),” Norquist said.