If Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) does not accede to their demand to either shut down the government or defund the Affordable Care Act, a leading tea party activist claims that we will “probably see people across this country in the grassroots calling for a new Speaker.” The Huffington Post touted the possibility of “Speaker Cruz,” noting a quirk in the Constitution’s text that might allow someone who is not a member of the House to become its speaker. Any predictions that Boehner could be deposed are premature, however. The House rules make an intra-Republican revolt against Boehner unlikely to succeed, and such a revolt could even turn Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) into the House’s kingmaker.
Without a doubt, Boehner is in a weak place. A shutdown is likely next week entirely because he’s allowed himself to be led around by the most reactionary members of his caucus. Indeed, tea partiers so dominate the House GOP’s internal affairs that House Republicans just released a set of debt ceiling demands that suggests that they should be civilly committed. John Boehner is still speaker, but the man who believes that communists infiltrated Harvard Law School and that a left-wing billionaire is spearheading a United Nations plot to eliminate the game of golf is clearly running the show.
Nonetheless, Boehner’s speakership is probably safe so long as any revolt against him is limited to just one faction — even a majority faction — within the GOP. Although the leader of the majority party within the House has historically served as speaker, the Speaker of the House is the speaker of the entire House. For this reason, a speaker is elected by a majority of all House members, with a Democratic vote counting just as much as a Republican vote.
Additionally, while the House rules do permit a simple majority of the House to remove a speaker, the process for replacing the speaker requires two steps. If an insurgent faction wanted to depose Boehner, they would begin by filing a “resolution declaring the Office of Speaker vacant.” Should a majority of the entire House support this resolution, Boehner would cease to be speaker and a new election would be required to choose someone new to lead the House. The new speaker, however, could only be elected by a majority of the entire House. Thus, a tea party insurgency would need either overwhelming Republican support or support from Democrats to remove Boehner. And even if this insurgency succeeded in declaring the speakership vacant, they may lack the votes to replace Boehner with the speaker of their choice.
This later possibility should give the tea party pause before they begin the process to depose Boehner. In 1997, Boehner himself helped lead an aborted attempt to remove Speaker Newt Gingrich and replace him with Rep. Bill Paxon (R-NY). The coup failed, however, due to concerns that Boehner’s insurgents lacked the votes necessary to elect Paxon once Gingrich was deposed. Indeed, in the event of a vacant speakership, there may have been enough Republican defectors willing to join a coalition with Democrats to elevate Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) to the speaker’s chair.
Today, it is difficult to imagine even a small minority of Republicans joining a coalition that would return Nancy Pelosi to the speaker’s chair, but it is not impossible to imagine Pelosi’s caucus joining a majority coalition that supports a more moderate speaker than John Boehner. The tea party faction may be steering the Republican ship, but they are not the only faction in the party. If Boehner is deposed, it is not at all clear that any faction within the GOP has the votes to elect any person speaker unless they join with Democrats.
So Boehner’s speakership is probably safe — at least for now. Absent near unanimous support among Republicans for a new speaker candidate, a new speaker could easily be more moderate than John Boehner.