Shutdown Politics: Pressure On Boehner Not Just From the Tea Party

Two weeks into the shutdown, Speaker Boehner finds himself in quite the pickle.  On the right, Republican hardliners and members of the tea party are threatening to challenge his Speakership if he allows a vote on a clean budget bill.  But, with the filing of a discharge petition, the majority of House members are threatening to undermine his authority to set the chamber agenda – a threat that is perhaps equally biting.  Which, then, is most credible – the threat of removal or the threat of discharge?  

To start, let’s consider what it would take to remove Speaker Boehner from his position.  The House Rules do not themselves specify a procedure for removing the Speaker from office, and doing so would be unprecedented (though, interestingly, Boehner led a failed coup to replace Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997).  However, Rule 24.1 says that Jefferson’s Manual – the first American book on parliamentary procedure – shall govern the House when the chamber rules are silent on a particular issue, including the removal and replacement of the Speaker.  According to Jefferson’s Manual Section 9§315, the Speaker “may be removed at the will of the House.”  Moreover a resolution seeking the removal of the Speaker is considered a matter of privilege, meaning that it supersedes other considerations on the floor.  

Having established that it is possible to replace Boehner as Speaker, the question then becomes whether hard-line Republicans would actually benefit from doing so.  The answer is almost certainly not.  To replace the Speaker would require the nomination of a new one, who would then need to be elected by a majority of the full chamber.  And while 32 hardline Republicans may have been able to cause the government shutdown, they simply do not have the votes to decide who will be the next Speaker.  In other words, they are far more likely to end up with a moderate Republican – say, Paul Ryan –, than Raul Labrador or Tim Huelskamp.  Even worse, if the Republican caucus divides among GOP candidates, the House could even end up with a consensus Democrat as the new Speaker.  All this is to say that removing Speaker Boehner from office would be an exceedingly poor move – one that would likely move ultra-conservatives and Tea Party members even farther from their goals. It would introduce profound uncertainty into already uncertain politics.

When the shutdown began, the consensus was that the incentives to invoking the discharge rule made it, too, a threat lacking in credibility.  In fact, in an earlier blog post, I compared the discharge rule to a game of chicken, where Democrats and moderates face off against the leadership; at the time, I predicted that the leadership would win in the end, since the threat of discharge was simply not credible, due to the high political costs associated with the rule. That is, at the time, Democrats could not convince Republicans – even those who supported a clean CR – to get on board, since doing so would mean openly defying the leadership and violating the normal legislative routine in backing a discharge petition. This was a huge blow, since discharge petitions are historically far more likely to succeed when backed by moderate members of the majority party.

This all changed on Friday night, when Republican Peter King declared that he would back a discharge petition on a clean continuing resolution.  This move is a marked change from last week when Mr. King said he would not sign a discharge petition to force a vote. When King switched his position, the credibility of the discharge threat was restored, and discharge proponents gained the upper hand vis-à-vis the leadership.

So, given these two competing pressures, what is the best-case scenario for Speaker Boehner?  It may be one that Mr. Boehner has opposed: a Senate compromise.  If the Senate is responsible for resolving the shutdown, Mr. Boehner will not be forced to alienate either those to his right or those to his left. But what will happen in the absence of such a compromise?  If Mr. Boehner reads the tea leaves, he will understand that the Tea Party wing of the House is too weak to remove him as Speaker, while the possibility of a successful (and embarrassing) discharge petition is legitimate.  Thus, the prospect of a discharge petition—rather than the petition itself—may be what motivates the Speaker.  If he does bring a budget bill to the floor, he will be met with the applause of a grateful public, House Democrats, and many members of his own party. And the rest – the hard-line conservatives who will, undoubtedly, be displeased – lack the institutional advantage to do anything about it.