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Conservatives Consider Coalition Gambit to Depose Boehner

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 13: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., participates in the press conference announcing House GOP leadership for upcoming session of Congress  on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
If conservative rebels take down the speaker, what happens to McCarthy? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

An effort to take Speaker John A. Boehner’s gavel is running into a familiar problem — who would replace him? — and conservatives, this time, are at least entertaining the idea of an unlikely ally: Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

McCarthy has been emphatic he isn’t interested in a coup against Boehner.

“The whole thing is absurd,” an aide from McCarthy’s office said. “As Leader McCarthy said last week, this kind of gossip is a distraction and that our focus must be on promoting a results oriented agenda that will combat this President’s failed policies.”

What McCarthy actually said was, “We have an election every two years to pick our speaker. We’ve had that election, and now, let’s move on.”

But conservatives don’t want to move on.

A number of conservatives have told CQ Roll Call there’s talk of a scenario wherein McCarthy takes the speakership and a conservative, such as House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan or Raúl R. Labrador, is named majority leader. One HFC member said Jordan talked to him about eventually supporting McCarthy for speaker.

But if Jordan or Labrador are the chosen conservative leadership candidates, both are doing a convincing job of dismissing that gossip.

On Sept. 18, Jordan told CQ Roll Call he has no interest in any leadership position at all — “There is no talk about any of that,” the Ohio Republican said — and on Sept. 8, when CQ Roll Call asked Labrador about a package deal with him and McCarthy, Labrador, standing in the basement stairwell of Tortilla Coast, literally laughed it off. “That’s news to me,” the Idaho Republican said.

And yet, in an indication of perhaps how seriously some members are considering the “package deal,” as one Republican lawmaker put it, other Republicans are already quietly building support for down-the-ballot positions, and Boehner opponents are discussing logistics of alliance candidacies.

Conservatives seem aware such a coalition play would require changing conference rules.

Members involved in the coalition talks fear that McCarthy would be elected speaker, and then another establishment Republican would take the open majority leader spot. They say the rules could be changed to allow the conference to elect a speaker and a majority leader like the president and vice president, a proposal that would certainly face significant opposition in the conference. A GOP aide told CQ Roll Call that elected — “emphasis on elected” — leadership positions are “not something that is just handed out like a door prize on Wheel of Fortune.”

Even some conservatives agree the scenario is a little far-fetched.

Thomas Massie, R-Ky., has made no secret of his opposition to Boehner and McCarthy, and he said it would be “short-sighted to cut that deal right now.”

“Why would we elect an establishment speaker?” he asked, noting the support in presidential elections for outsider candidates.

When CQ Roll Call theorized that McCarthy was may be the only person who could replace Boehner, Massie rejected the premise outright — and he disagreed that if the coalition gambit somehow worked, conservatives would be better off. “I think if you bargain for that, you’re going to get something much worse,” he said.

Massie’s push, instead, is Florida Republican Daniel Webster — the middle-of-the-road Republican who garnered 12 speaker votes in January and was then promptly removed from the Rules Committee.

Webster’s run for speaker was based not on his personal politics, but on changing the process by which Republicans in Congress operate. He wanted to make the lawmaking process more inclusive. While that message may resonate with a majority in the GOP conference, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Webster — let alone anyone other than Boehner — could actually win the speakership.

Without a clear candidate, the already long odds of taking down Boehner go up dramatically. Similar efforts to take down Boehner have failed in the past because conservatives couldn’t find a viable alternative. That may be why conservatives have seemed surprisingly open to the idea of McCarthy taking the speakership — as long as one of their own takes majority leader.

“There are circumstances in which I can vote for any member of the GOP conference for speaker,” Mo Brooks, R-Ala., told CQ Roll Call late last week. “You’d have to look at the entire team, not just one member of the team.”

But as much chatter as there is about Boehner losing his job, Brooks still thinks Boehner’s speakership is safe, mostly because Brooks assumes that Democrats’ “first inclination” would be to abstain from a vote on a motion to vacate the chair. In that scenario, it would take more than 120 Republicans to vote against Boehner — and Brooks just doesn’t see how that would happen. “All this talk is kind of rumor mill and gossipy, but until there’s 124 votes, there’s no substance to it,” Brooks said.

Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen said last week during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that Boehner couldn’t count on Democrats to vote for him during a motion to vacate the chair. When CQ Roll Call later caught up with Van Hollen, he wouldn’t rule out Democrats abstaining. “Speaker Boehner is the speaker,” Van Hollen said, “Let’s just see what the Republican caucus decides in the coming days.”

Still, if Democrats abstain from a vote and Boehner manages to survive a motion to vacate the chair, conservatives will almost certainly claim Boehner’s position as head of the conference is untenable.

Even without Democrats truly voting for him to be speaker, the right-wing will argue that Boehner would be beholden to Democrats. Democrats could bring the motion back themselves at any moment, and therefore, the Ohio Democrat would be in no place to negotiate with the other aisle.

Boehner would be so weakened, he’d have to resign, conservatives argue.

That could be wishful thinking from Boehner’s opponents, but it also might be a reflection of a fact that the headaches of the job may no longer be worth it for the speaker.

When Boehner ally Mike Simpson was asked why the speaker would want, with the never-ending constant drama and demand for fundraising, to keep the gavel, Simpson had a characteristically Mike Simpson laugh.

“That’s the question,” the Idaho Republican said. “I’ve asked him that before.”

As for Boehner’s office, spokeswoman Emily Schillinger offered this statement: “Writing the same story over and over again isn’t going to change the fact that the Speaker isn’t going anywhere.”

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