September 19, 2014 House Republicans are quietly discussing a proposal that could fundamentally alter the way future speakers of the House are chosen, according to multiple GOP sources, with the objective of avoiding a repeat of John Boehner’s embarrassing reelection vote in 2013.
The rule tweak began as an informal discussion but has morphed into a concrete proposal that is beginning to circulate in the House. According to people briefed on it, any Republican who votes on the House floor in January against the conference’s nominee for House speaker—that is, the candidate chosen by a majority of the House GOP during its closed-door leadership elections in November—would be severely punished. Specifically, sources say, any dissenters would be stripped of all committee assignments for that Congress.
“There’s a real concern that there’s between 30 and 40 people that would vote against the speaker on the House floor, so they’re trying to change the conference rules to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said a GOP member familiar with the proposal.
At the same, time, according to sources, conservative lawmakers are discussing something of a counter-proposal. Under their plan, the November leadership elections would be pushed back until after the lame-duck session of Congress ends in December. This idea was described by one House conservative as a preemptive strike to warn leadership not to consider any significant legislation during the 15-day period between November’s midterm elections and the start of the new Congress in January.
This idea, in light of the proposed pelaties for voting against the speaker in January, could also be aimed at giving potential challengers additional time to organize support for the conference elections. Because it would need to be assented to by the current leadership, it stands almost no chance of being implemented.
Even if the first proposal is adopted, Republicans would still be allowed to vote for anyone in those closed-door internal elections, during which members choose their leadership officials for the next Congress. But once a majority of the conference has voted for their candidate as speaker, that decision will be final. When the House holds its chamber-wide vote for speaker on the first day of the new Congress, all Republicans will be expected to support the party’s nominee. Next year, barring any surprise development, Boehner will be that nominee.
It’s unclear the degree to which leadership is involved with pushing the proposal. According to Republicans close to the situation, the plan was not authored by or circulated within Boehner’s team. Instead, they say, the speaker’s allies in the rank-and-file are promoting the idea as a way to avoid another awkward display of intra-party rivalry at the start of the 114th Congress. Still, it’s difficult to imagine Boehner’s friends moving forward with such a drastic plan without his approval, if not support.
“There are members frustrated with other members about what happened last time,” said a senior Republican.
Twelve House Republicans refused to vote for Boehner’s reelection in January 2013 at the outset of the 113th Congress. This level of dissent was insufficient to oust Boehner from the speakership, but served to embarrass the speaker and publicly air the party’s dirty laundry. The incident infuriated Boehner’s allies, who claimed no opposition was voiced privately during the conference elections—an affront to the traditional process of keeping internal campaigns private.
Still, even with plenty of members still upset over that 2013 incident, adopting this proposal won’t be easy. A majority of House Republicans must vote for any change to the conference rules, and some lawmakers would certainly oppose the change. Such sweeping punitive measures would be difficult to keep under wraps, such as Boehner and the Steering Committee did in late 2012 when three outspoken conservatives were kicked off committees for failing to support party initiatives.
“The speaker at any one point in time has probably 90 to 100 votes, for sure. So it’s just a matter of making the case to a mere 20 folks or so and get the rule changed. But I think there would be a lot of people who would still vote for the speaker, but would have a real hard time with that kind of rule change,” said the first Republican member.
Rep. Raul Labrador, one of the 12 who refused to vote for Boehner’s reelection last year, called the idea “terribly misguided.”
“It would create more division and actually encourage people to vote against Boehner on the floor,” said Labrador, who earlier this year failed to win Cantor’s leadership post in a special election.
The timing of this proposed rule tweak is especially interesting. Nobody is expected to compete with Boehner for the speakership next Congress, much less beat him. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the Financial Services Committee, has quietly considered a campaign against Boehner. But Hensarling’s allies argue that Eric Cantor’s resignation this summer, which triggered a leadership shake-up and fortified Boehner’s position atop the conference, make it highly unlikely Hensarling will seek the speakership.
“I don’t think you’ll see that kind of drama,” Rep. Paul Ryan, a close friend of Hensarling, toldNational Journal earlier this month. “I think Jeb would look at it if there were an open seat. But I don’t think an open seat is going to occur.”
It seems, then, the proposal is meant more broadly to prevent another contentious leadership election that feeds the narrative about divisions within the GOP. And it may be aimed particularly at freshmen entering the House next year, some of whom have said on the campaign trail that they would refuse to vote for Boehner. Tea-party-aligned candidates in Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina have already said they will not support the speaker.
It also comes as members close to the speaker have been circling the wagons over the last few months. Reps. Devin Nunes, Pat Tiberi, and Tom Cole, some of Boehner’s inner circle, have been trying to force members to pay their dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee, and if they don’t they don’t get to sit on A-level committees, such as Ways and Means.
Capitol Hill has also been abuzz in recent days about the other potential procedural change being discussed — pushing back the conference leadership elections.
Conservatives could make the case that members won’t have sufficient evidence by which to judge the new leadership team that took over in late June. And, indeed, some already have hinted that Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise — the new majority leader and majority whip, respectively — should be evaluated primarily by their decision-making during the lame-duck period.
Still, it’s difficult to imagine a majority of the conference supporting such a proposal. From a logistical standpoint, rescheduling the conference elections—which traditionally overlap with freshmen orientation, so that incoming members may participate—could prove impossible at this late stage.
More importantly, most Republicans are calling for unity heading into the next session of Congress, and several leading conservatives acknowledged Thursday that there likely won’t be a contested leadership race anyway.
“I don’t see anybody right now going forward and mounting a challenge to the speaker,” Labrador said.