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The ‘Trump Phenomenon’ and the Effort to Overthrow Boehner

Donald Trump has turned the GOP presidential race upside down, but will he have an impact on House Republicans? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Donald Trump has turned the GOP presidential race upside down, but will he have an impact on House Republicans? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A day before the August recess, when Rep. Mark Meadows announced a legislative move to strip Speaker John A. Boehner of his gavel, few would have predicted that Donald Trump would be the summer’s biggest political story.  

But with the billionaire developer consistently topping the polls, and with most theories on his ascendance citing a general disgust with business as usual in Washington, Meadows sees Trump as a harbinger for his colleagues in the House. “The Trump phenomenon is not just with Donald Trump; it’s with re-election with members as well,” Meadows told CQ Roll Call Wednesday, “and there’s a real throw-out-the-establishment-bums mentality.”  

Meadows hasn’t endorsed any presidential candidate — and backing Trump wouldn’t seem to jive with much of the North Carolina social conservative positions — but Meadows told CQ Roll Call that Trump’s rise is “a byproduct of real frustration on Main Street America.”  

Members need to take note of that frustration, he said — or they might get run over by it.  

Meadows reported that he hasn’t really been lobbying Republicans on his move to fire Boehner with a motion to vacate the chair. Three members — Thomas Massie, R-Ky., Walter Jones Jr., R-N.C., and Ted Yoho, R-Fla. — have signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation since Meadows dropped the non-privileged resolution on July 28.  

But Meadows said there’s a reason he isn’t encouraging colleagues to sign on to the motion: He doesn’t want co-sponsorship to become a litmus test for conservatives. And it doesn’t sound like he wants to give leadership a whip count.  

“Where the votes are? Again it’s not my job to count the votes for or against,” Meadows said (a comment that likely offers some insight itself into how serious so far the effort is to take away Boehner’s gavel).  

But, in listening to Meadows and considering GOP leadership’s response to the motion, it’s also clear the effort cannot just be shrugged off.  

The House didn’t vote to table the resolution to strip Boehner of his speakership before leaving for August. A disgusted Boehner told reporters the day after Meadows made his move that the House wasn’t moving to table the resolution because, frankly, he didn’t think it was even deserving of a vote. And yet members told CQ Roll Call they believed there was a real danger in letting the resolution hang out there over August, in letting it fester.  

Conservatives for their part said they thought leadership didn’t hold a vote on the resolution because they didn’t know how it would shake out. It was a wild-card vote leaders didn’t need to take and didn’t want to risk losing — or even be seen legitimizing.  

However such a vote would have turned out, Meadows told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday he believes “a number of Democrats” would have had to vote for Boehner for him to retain the speakership — meaning Meadows thinks there are now more anti-Boehner Republicans than the 25 who voted against the Ohioan at the start of the 114th Congress.  

That theory could be tested soon enough.  

“I think all of September is a huge pressure point, and can be a real time that people start looking at changes in leadership,” Meadows said.  

With a slew of make-or-break votes facing Congress this month, Meadows could upgrade his non-privileged resolution to a privileged one at any moment — meaning it’d have to be voted on in some form, most likely to table it. Meadows and other rabblerousers could use a vote on a motion to vacate the chair as leverage to ensure conservatives’ concerns are heard.  

That includes the Iran deal, Meadows said, particularly after Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., announced her support of the agreement Wednesday, giving Democrats enough votes to uphold a presidential veto of any Republican attempt to torpedo the deal.  

Despite controlling both chambers of Congress, the president seems to have checkmated Republicans on the Iran deal — something Meadows puts squarely on the shoulders of GOP leaders. Why, he asks, did leadership support legislation that required Congress to get a supermajority to block the deal in the first place, instead of insisting that Obama secure a supermajority?  

There’s also the debate over legislation to fund the government. Meadows was actually one of the chief architects of the 2013 shutdown, something he ultimately regretted .  

Meadows said Wednesday he doesn’t think anybody wants to shut down the government this year. But he also said passing a continuing resolution to avoid a shutdown presents different hurdles for different members — including Planned Parenthood funding, military spending, and abiding by the sequester spending caps.  

Boehner could upset a lot of members by not allowing an open debate and amendment process, Meadows indicated.  

Asked if a Boehner spending deal that required Democratic votes to pass might be enough to trigger a privileged resolution to vacate the chair, Meadows said there are two factors to weigh. The first is what members heard when they went back home —  “I know what I heard when I went back” — and the second, “probably more critical component” is whether Boehner fulfills promises he’s made on fighting for Republican priorities and allowing members to be heard.  

“Can I give you a definitive ‘It’s going to be brought up’? No,” Meadows said. But he isn’t ruling it out either.  

Another issue up in the air is whether Meadows will face punishment for offering the resolution.  

“I have heard a few rumblings,” Meadows said. “Nothing definitive.”  

Meadows was temporarily stripped of his subcommittee gavel back in June, until Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, facing a potential backlash from House Freedom Caucus members, backtracked.  

It’s unclear whether fellow HFC members would have Meadows’ back again. Meadows has insisted from the very beginning that he offered the motion to vacate the chair over the protests of HFC leaders — at least that ones that knew.  

Meanwhile, Team Boehner could go with a different sort of retaliation, perhaps moving to kick Meadows off one of his committees. (That sort of decision would go to the conference, whereas decisions like appointing a new subcommittee chairman need the approval of the committee, hence why Chaffetz was forced to keep Meadows.)  

“At this point, any fallout that happens because of my actions is really not unexpected,” Meadows said.  

Meadows mentioned that leadership had already cut off his fundraising spigot. Branding yourself as a “conservative outsider,” however, can open the door to different revenue streams. Meadows is starting a PAC, and other groups have been fundraising off of the Meadows motion to vacate the chair.  

Asked for comment Wednesday about Meadows’ resolution, a GOP aide offered this sentiment: “Congressman Meadows has spoken repeatedly about his pure intentions throughout August — but stood by silently as Washington fundraising groups continue to raise money off of his action. How can Americans trust his sincerity when he refuses to tell outside groups to stop fundraising off of his own name?”  

The answer that Meadows has given repeatedly is that this resolution was something he felt he needed to do. He said the No. 1 question he’s been getting in his own district over the recess is “When will we get a new speaker?” And he said the easiest vote a member takes should be on the first day of Congress, when members elect a speaker.  

Instead, Meadows continued, a number of Republicans were wounded by having to vote for Boehner.  

Even if Meadows knows he alone can’t successfully oust the speaker, he believes he’s representing his constituents, and he thinks other members might come down on his side if the resolution gets a vote.  

“The greatest potential for whipping on this vote is between that member and the 750,000 people they represent,” he said.

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