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Would-Be Boehner Successors Jockeying to Line Up Support

UNITED STATES - JULY 29: House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, participates in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 29, 2015. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
The chatter about deposing Boehner is louder than usual. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Talk of deposing John A. Boehner has reached such a crescendo that one frustrated House Republican stood up in a closed-door meeting Wednesday night and said she was tired of would-be leadership candidates contacting her about supporting them.

Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota told the GOP conference Wednesday she didn’t appreciate all the calls she’s received from potential leadership candidates asking for her vote, multiple members told CQ Roll Call.

It’s that early jockeying that has a number of conservatives questioning whether the speaker can survive through the end of the year. Asked how the Ohio Republican’s foes could actually take him down, Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie — who has made no secret of his wish to ditch Boehner — implied it wasn’t even going to take a conservative coup to get rid of Boehner.

“His friends are doing it to him right now,” Massie said. “They’re already running for positions, all the way down to whip and conference chair.”

On Thursday, a Politico story reported Republicans were testing the waters on a leadership run, though lawmakers and aides were quick to refute that charge.

The No. 2 Republican in the House, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, tried to quell talk of a Boehner revolt.

“We have an election every two years to pick our speaker,” he told reporters Thursday. “We’ve had that election, and now, let’s move on.”

Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s office said in a statement these kinds of discussions are a distraction from the work the House is doing.

“This kind of palace intrigue is more about splashy headlines than it is about reality,” said Scalise’s communications director, Chris Bond, continuing that Boehner “obviously has the full support of the Whip.”

Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, looking to move up in leadership according to some of the reports, issued her own statement Thursday. In it, she said “over the last several months,” she’s been asked by leadership to engage in a member-driven process to craft a House Republican vision for every American. “Those internal conversations are ongoing,” the Washington Republican said.

“I have not made calls to Members to seek their support for any other position,” McMorris Rodgers continued. “John Boehner is the right man at this time to be our Speaker. He’s gained our trust over many years, and he has my support.”

But while GOP leaders were publicly tamping down talk of revolt, there were signs of trouble for Boehner behind the scenes.

One senior GOP aide told CQ Roll Call that, as far as he knew, Scalise was the only member of the current leadership team making calls asking for support. Another senior GOP aide said Scalise was making calls, along with Tom Price, R-Ga., who unsuccessfully ran for conference chairman in 2012, and Peter Roskam, R-Ill, a former chief deputy whip. Spokesmen for both Price and Roskam denied that their bosses are making phone calls.

When asked Thursday about members angling for new spots, Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry feigned surprise that politicians would ever prematurely campaign.

“No! Not in this place!” McHenry said sarcastically. “Nobody’s angling for anything in this place!”

When the North Carolina Republican got serious, he downplayed the campaigning and warned against assuming Boehner was in trouble. “There’s always people angling,” he said. “But never count John Boehner out.”

While talk of replacing Boehner is racing through the conference as a whole, the idea was still being downplayed among conservatives and groups such as the House Freedom Caucus. At HFC meetings, anti-Boehner proposals have mostly been brought up as jokes, and HFC members insist they aren’t actively discussing the best way to take out Boehner.

One lawmaker opposed to the speaker said via text message Thursday that a coup “is being talked about quietly at multiple levels at much greater frequency than is being talked about among conservatives.”

But rank-and-file members, even the ones lining up support for a leadership run, all assume it will take a conservative spark to light the powder keg.

One anti-Boehner Republican said a chairman had asked him not to call a vote on a motion to vacate the chair until Pope Francis, invited to address Congress by the Catholic speaker, makes his speech next week. The chairman told the member the Pope visit “meant a lot to Boehner,” the member said.

Most members believe Boehner will have to face a motion to vacate the chair soon after the House votes on a continuing resolution that funds Planned Parenthood. Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said Boehner’s handling of the Planned Parenthood issue in the CR would be a defining moment in the future of his speakership “in some people’s minds.”

Salmon included himself in that category.

“I think it’s the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Salmon told reporters Thursday. “I think we’ve seen promises to fight tooth and nail on things in the past and it hasn’t really materialized. I think there will be a point where, you know, the thin ice breaks.”

But some don’t think there’s anything Boehner can do to save his job. Asked whether Boehner could avoid conservative backlash, Massie suggested Boehner’s fate was sealed.

“Going into another fake shutdown like he did on Obamacare is not going to save his job,” he said.

Massie continued that it’s already been accepted “by every member up here that the speaker doesn’t have 218 Republican votes.” (Technically, Boehner was elected speaker in January with 216 votes.)

“Whether it takes 10 Democrats or 50 Democrats to keep his speakership, yeah, or one Democrat — Nancy Pelosi, I don’t know — it’s caustic,” Massie said. “And a short-term solution that is not sustainable.”

Many members seem to think Boehner needing Democratic votes to keep his job would be so damaging to the Ohio Republican that he’d resign — either before such a vote or shortly thereafter.

But Boehner allies suggested there still isn’t a real alternative to the speaker, and that the vast majority of the House Republican Conference is behind Boehner.

“I don’t sense any erosion in his position,” Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Thursday. “Quite the opposite. People realize how challenging this is, and I think he’s getting pretty high marks for how much he’s got done.”

Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, suggested most members were more frustrated with the rabble-rousers than they were with Boehner. “I think John’s position in conference is stronger in conference than it’s been in a long time,” he said.

And when Boehner was asked how confident he is he’ll have the votes to defeat a motion to vacate the chair, he only needed one word — “very.”

“As the Speaker made clear this morning,” Boehner spokeswoman Emily Schillinger told CQ Roll Call, “he has wide support throughout the conference and he isn’t going anywhere.”

Emma Dumain contributed to this report.

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