Last night, the House handed Speaker John Boehner an embarrassing defeat. Boehner had to cancel a vote on his proposed plan to enact a short term debt ceiling hike and then trigger another default crisis in just six months because his own GOP-dominated House lacks the votes necessary to pass it. Indeed, according to one whip count, Boehner may be as much as 12 votes short of the majority he needs to pass his plan.
It is possible, if unlikely, that Boehner could still dig up the votes he needs to pass his plan. Many commentators, however, have already labeled his caucus’ decision on his plan a referendum on Boehner that could potentially put “Boehner’s Speakership is on the line.”
If Boehner’s caucus wants to depose him, the House Rules allow this to happen. According to Jefferson’s Manual, a 19th century procedural manual that has been largely incorporated into the House Rules:
A Speaker may be removed at the will of the House, and a Speaker pro tempore appointed.
A resolution declaring the Office of Speaker vacant presents a question of constitutional privilege, though the House has never removed a Speaker. It has on several occasions removed or suspended other officers, such as Clerk and Doorkeeper. A resolution for the removal of an officer is presented as a matter of privilege.
There is, however, a catch. Speaker Boehner may presently be the highest ranking Republican in Congress, but speakers are elected by the entire House — not simply the majority party. A resolution removing Speaker Boehner — most likely because of a Tea Party revolt seeking to replace him with someone even further to the right — would require either overwhelming support in Boehner’s own caucus or collusion with the Democrats.
Indeed, Boehner knows better than anyone how difficult it can be to remove a speaker mid-term. In 1997, after many Republicans decided that Speaker Newt Gingrich had become an embarrassment, Boehner helped lead a failed coup to replace Gingrich and replace him with Rep. Bill Paxon (R-NY). At least according to Gingrich, the coup failed because Gingrich refused to resign, and warned the coup leaders that if they kicked him out of the speakership there may not have been enough GOP votes to install Paxon — and could even have been enough GOP defectors willing to join with the substantial Democratic minority to make Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-MO) speaker.
It is, to say the least, exceedingly unlikely that any current Republicans would vote to restore Nancy Pelosi to the speaker’s chair. At the same time, however, it is easy to imagine a situation where Boehner is removed and his caucus divides among several GOP candidates. In that situation, Pelosi could have the power to play kingmaker — and to potentially exact concessions in return for her caucus’ support.