Let’s make one thing clear right out the gate. Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) will probably be elected to another term as Speaker of the House on Tuesday. Assuming that every House Democrat does not vote for Boehner, 29 Republicans would need to abandon him in order to throw the speaker’s election into a second ballot. As of this writing, a Washington Post whip count lists only 13 Republicans who have said they intend to vote against the incumbent speaker. When all the drama is done, expect Boehner to emerge with a gavel.
Nevertheless, several members of the GOP’s right flank have lined up against Boehner. Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Ted Yoho (R-FL), both members of the party’s tea party wing, announced that they plan to challenge Boehner for his job. The Heritage Foundation, which is itself closely identified with the tea party, touted a poll showing 60 percent of Republican voters want someone other than Boehner to be speaker.
Heritage could come to regret its decision to push this narrative, however. Given the particular way that the Speaker of the House is selected, the benefactor if Boehner is deposed is unlikely to be Gohmert or Yoho. It could be House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D).
Unlike the House majority and minority leaders, who are selected by their party caucuses, the Speaker of the House is the speaker of the entire House. This means that they are elected by the House as a whole rather than by one party or the other, and each individual member of Congress casts exactly one vote for the speaker regardless of their political party. An absolute majority is required to win the speaker’s race — so if Boehner only receives a plurality of the votes cast for speaker, the House will need to hold a second ballot.
That brings up the possible role of Leader Pelosi and the Democratic minority caucus. According to Politico, “[m]ost senior Republicans — even those who oppose the Ohio Republican — concede that there is no one in the House Republican Conference besides Boehner who could garner a majority.” So if Boehner fails to win election, the most likely outcome is unlikely to be another Republican stepping into the breech — or, at least, another Republican is unlikely to get elected right away. If Boehner loses, the speaker’s chair is likely to remain vacant for some time as various candidates try to build a coalition large enough to succeed Boehner.
It is difficult to imagine Pelosi being the one who assembles such a majority coalition — Republicans would almost certainly prefer a vacant speakership to Speaker Pelosi — but remember that each Democratic member gets to cast a vote in the speaker’s race that counts just as much as each Republican member’s vote. Pelosi won’t be speaker, but she could be kingmaker by offering to throw her caucus’s votes behind the most moderate candidate. Or, perhaps, by exacting concessions from a candidate such as a promise to bring clean appropriations bills and a clean debt ceiling hike to the floor.
Indeed, one person who is particularly aware of the minority’s ability to make mischief when the speakership is vacant is Boehner himself. In 1997, Boehner helped lead a failed coup seeking to depose then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and replace him with Rep. Bill Paxon (R-NY). Gingrich later claimed that this coup failed because he refused to resign and warned the coup leaders that, if he did step down, there might not be enough GOP votes to install Paxon and there might even be enough crossover voters to make Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) speaker.
Tea party Republicans, in other words, have a choice to make. They can vote for the devil they know, or they can spin the wheel on an uncertain process that could give significant leverage to Leader Pelosi.