By Scott Wong – 09/23/15 06:00 AM EDT
Growing chatter about a possible coup against Speaker John Boehner has set Capitol Hill on edge.
Talk that conservatives might use a government-funding showdown to overthrow the powerful Ohio Republican has triggered a flurry of behind-the-scenes jockeying among lawmakers eager to move up the leadership ladder.
And that has lawmakers wondering more than ever if Boehner’s days as Speaker are numbered.
“That’s what tells you there’s something afoot. You know there’s some drops of blood in the water, because all the sharks are starting to circle,” said one conservative lawmaker who backs Boehner’s ouster.
Conservatives have threatened to shut down the government on Oct. 1 if Congress doesn’t strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood. Boehner thinks a shutdown would be disastrous for the party in an election year, but he also knows conservatives have vowed to move against him if he teams up with Democrats to fund the government.
Publicly, Boehner is projecting confidence, repeatedly telling reporters in recent weeks he has “widespread support” from his GOP conference. But even behind closed doors, Boehner has had to contend with nagging questions about his political future.
At a private fundraiser for a GOP lawmaker last week, a donor asked Boehner whether he was worried about a possible conservative insurrection.
“Look, this group of guys is not going to knock me off my stride,” Boehner replied, according to a source in the room.
“The Speaker isn’t going anywhere,” added Boehner spokeswoman Emily Schillinger. “He’s focused on the American people’s priorities and how we can accomplish them.”
A number of Boehner’s close friends and allies have dismissed the coup talk as overblown, insisting he has a firm grip on his conference. Neither they nor anyone they’ve talked to have received phone calls from GOP colleagues seeking support for an imminent leadership race, the allies added.
Rep. Thomas Rooney (R-Fla.) predicted Boehner would “win easily” if a floor vote were called to remove the Speaker in the middle of his third two-year term.
And House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who is part of Boehner’s close-knit circle, attempted to turn the tables on members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, denouncing them as “right-wing Marxists” who have empowered House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) by undermining Boehner.
“The right-wing Marxist have teamed up with Pelosi. They’re the ones who always team up with Pelosi. They are the Pelosi Republicans,” an infuriated Nunes said in an interview. “The Freedom Caucus is an arm of Pelosi.”
But the reality is that Boehner may need to rely on Pelosi in some capacity if conservatives do bring forward a motion to “vacate” the Speaker’s chair — a procedural move to effectively boot Boehner out of power.
Pelosi is playing coy about how Democrats might respond to such a motion. All 188 Democrats could team up with roughly 30 Freedom Caucus members to overthrow Boehner and send the House into chaos. But that alliance seems unlikely since Democrats are worried about the prospects of a Tea Party Speaker who could emerge from the dust.
A handful of Democrats already went on record this year, saying they would vote to save Boehner, preferring to stick with the devil they know. And other Democrats told CNN this week they were inclined to ride to Boehner’s rescue, even as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) warned that Boehner shouldn’t count on Democrats to bail him out.
“The only direction that Democrats leaders have given is to never get in the way of a good Republican dysfunction story,” joked one Democratic leadership aide.
If all 188 Democrats banded together and simply voted “present” on the motion to oust Boehner, the incumbent Speaker would easily win a majority of his 247-member GOP conference. He would just needs 124 votes, or more than half of the GOP lawmakers voting that particular day.
But striking such a deal with Democrats would further infuriate the right, making it even more difficult for Boehner to bring along conservatives on a host of fiscal issues he’ll have to confront this year, including raising the debt ceiling, a fight over budget caps and extending highway funding.
Conservatives say Boehner would be committing political suicide if he relies on Pelosi to save his hide.
Such a move would expose his weakness and ruin his credibility within the GOP conference, they say, putting him in an even worse standing with the far right than he is today.
“If the votes called to vacate the chair, then I see Boehner resigning,” the conservative lawmaker said of a possible floor vote to remove the Speaker. “He could go cut a deal with Pelosi, but would you really want to govern after that, knowing that Democrats saved your bacon?
“He’d be worse off — it’d be an embarrassment,” the source added. “That would be pretty pathetic to want [the speakership] that badly that you would take it under those circumstances.”
After The Hill reported last week that some conservatives had begun reaching out to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as a potential successor to Boehner, McCarthy, along with Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), all were forced to put out statements of support for Boehner.
“The more we get emails about how Cathy McMorris Rodgers or Paul Ryan or McCarthy support the Speaker, the more likely it seems the Speaker is not going to survive,” quipped a second member of the Freedom Caucus.
Last week, two-term Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) also began informing colleagues that he’s planning to run for GOP whip, the number three job in leadership, according to the National Journal reported. Mullin had no comment about the report, saying “there is not a leadership race right now.”
GOP Rep. Daniel Webster, the former Florida state House Speaker, told The Hill some colleagues have been encouraging him to make a second bid for Speaker. And other GOP sources said former Chief Deputy Minority Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) could launch potential leadership bids.
One lawmaker thought Roskam might make a long-shot bid for Speaker after Boehner leaves office. Roskam recently told The Hill he’s open to a future leadership run, but later added that he’s “not making any calls.”
All of the activity is raising questions about what will happen next. And it appears many members of the House GOP conference aren’t so sure themselves.
“Uncertainty creates action in the world of politics. There may be some level of jockeying based on people not having certainty about what comes next,” explained Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.).
“In the absence of any certainty, they don’t want to find themselves 10 yards back from the starting line.”