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How John Boehner could (and should) keep his job: make his opponents choose his successor

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Speaker John Boehner standing up and leading his caucus.
Speaker John Boehner standing up and leading his caucus.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

All is not well in Speaker John Boehner's House, as he faces a challenge from conservatives in his own party. This time, the primary cause for anger within the Republican Party's ranks is the fight over funding for Planned Parenthood. Boehner has faced challenges like this for some time. Given the impending — and recurring — fight over funding the government, it is timely to consider whether and how Boehner should quash the rebellion.

In considering the situation, two points emerge. First, if Boehner is overthrown, the federal government will probably shut down, hurting the GOP's image. Second, the House leadership should engage the rebellion directly and use parliamentary procedure to make it clear why this is so. This is because the Republican rebels cannot successfully replace Boehner, but they arguably won't stop unless they are given a highly visible arena to display their displeasure. The House leadership can structure the process so as to make clear to conservative voters why, while unpopular with his colleagues, Boehner should retain the gavel for the remainder of this Congress.

A rebellion would create chaos and hurt the GOP

The reason overthrowing Boehner will shut down the government is that the only practical way for GOP rebels to challenge Boehner is something referred to as the motion to vacate the chair. This procedure is an odd parliamentary maneuver in several ways. First, it can be offered at any time by any member (though it can have some downsides). Second, even though the motion is a hostile method by which the speaker can be replaced, it doesn't fully accomplish that goal. If the motion passes, the speaker's chair is merely left vacant, which means only that there is no speaker.

This is very important, because the House can't conduct any business until it chooses a new speaker, including funding the government past September 30.

Not only would choosing a new speaker preclude passing any legislation, it might do so for a long time, because being elected speaker requires receiving a majority of the votes cast, not only a plurality. Thus, vacating the chair would force the House to find one person that could secure majority support in the House. Nonetheless, and perhaps unsurprisingly, given the strife within the GOP and episodes such as the government shutdowns, Republican rebels seem relatively sanguine about the possibility of chaos following a successful revolt.

Above the fray, but not aloof; unafraid, but not imperious

In July, some called on Boehner to "allow" the motion, with the idea that Boehner would fend off the challenge and thereby strengthen his hand with the conservative faction in the GOP caucus. Boehner did not follow this advice. To be honest, I think he made a smart decision to ignore this advice, because, as stated above, the motion does not need to be "allowed" by the speaker. Deciding to allow the motion could be spun as imperious: an image that Boehner has worked more than many of his predecessors to avoid even as (or perhaps because) some of his detractors have attempted to paint him as such. From a longer view, and thus more importantly, doing so would arguably legitimate use of the motion to vacate the chair as a mechanism for intra-caucus challenges.

Common sense suggests, probably correctly, that the best way to avoid a rebellion is to "wait it out." Life intervenes, elections loom, etc. But the upcoming budget negotiations are going to force Boehner to make hard choices anyway. So what can he do to stymie the rebellion? He would probably survive a straight motion to vacate the chair ... but he would likely need some support from House Democrats to beat back the motion. Such an outcome is unpalatable to Boehner precisely because one of the leading charges against him is that he is not a "true conservative." This means a counterattack by Boehner needs to be designed so that Democrats can support Boehner by voting for someone other than Boehner.

Turning the unruly mob on itself ... with rules

The lacuna in Boehner's ability to control his party is simultaneously an ace up his sleeve in dealing with the rebels. Specifically, Boehner can't control his party because nobody truly "speaks for" the GOP conservative base. The House leadership can leverage this gap in the rebels' structure by bringing forth a special rule of the following form:

  1. After debate, the House votes one time for a replacement, using the standard rules for selection of a speaker, so that an individual must get a majority of votes to be selected.

  2. If no individual gets a majority in this vote, then the House proceeds back to normal business. On the other hand, if step one is concluded with a winner, then the House immediately votes on whether to replace Boehner with the winner of the step one vote.

This "step one, step two" structure could be simultaneously attractive to the GOP leadership, mainstream GOP members, and many of the GOP rebels. For the leadership, it seems unlikely that the rebels will be able to coordinate on a single candidate, thus thwarting the rebellion while also allowing the rebels to have their day on the floor. In addition, assuming every Democrat would vote for Nancy Pelosi in this stage, the rebellion can be defeated without (explicit) Democratic support.

Furthermore, mainstream GOP members will not want to vote for somebody other than Boehner unless they are reasonably certain Boehner will be replaced. At the same time, for such mainstream conservatives, this will allow them to (imperfectly) gauge the true support for Boehner. If he survives the challenge, these members would also have electoral cover in supporting him through the remainder of the Congress.

For the Republican rebels, this "step one, step two" structure provides a clear way to voice and show their anger at Boehner. The unhappy GOP members can demonstrate their displeasure to their constituents in a high-profile fashion — without throwing the House and nation into chaos. While Boehner's struggles with his caucus are partly about personality and hurt feelings, it is an old saw that members look first to their voters for cues on matters like this. Somewhat ironically, precisely because conservative voters don't like Boehner, it is smart politics for Boehner to let his members show they don't like him, too. It is responsible leadership to find a way to let these members show their anger while also retaining a governable House.

In the end, this is and has long been the main difficulty Boehner faces as speaker. He needs to show the conservative base of his caucus (or, perhaps, their constituents) what types of fights are impossible to win. In a climate where pork barrel projects are hard to come by and less popular than in years past, the only currency left for the House leadership may be angry floor votes. Properly setting up such a vote might just keep Boehner afloat without relying on Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues to throw him a life preserver.