Will John Boehner Lose the Speakership?

Flickr/Talk Radio News Service

The fiscal-cliff deal—which cleared the Senate by an overwhelming bipartisan majority earlier this week and passed the House late Tuesday—might end up costing House Speaker John Boehner his job. The legislation raises taxes on individuals earning more than $400,000 but cements the Bush tax cuts below that threshold. Only eight senators—five Republicans and three Democrats—dissented. But when the bill reached the House floor, conservatives revolted. The vast majority of House Democrats voted for the compromise measure while 64 percent of House Republicans—including Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy—voted against the bill.

By introducing the compromise hammered out between Senate Republicans and the White House, Boehner violated the so-called "Hastert Rule," the operational norm by which only bills supported by the majority of the caucus in power are brought up for a vote. The timing couldn't be worse for Boehner. On Thursday, the next session of the House will convene, and one of its first votes will be to decide whether Boehner maintains his speakership. The speaker is selected by a majority vote of all House members—not just Republicans. Presuming no Democrats vote for Boehner, a defection of only 17 Republicans would deprive Boehner of a majority. And according to Breitbart News, a collection of 20 Republican House members is already agitating against granting Boehner another term.

Boehner's counterpart in the Senate may also suffer a conservative backlash. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell negotiated with the White House to craft the deal that eventually reached the Senate floor, with most media accounts terming the bill the McConnell-Biden plan. Yet instead of being hailed as the Republican who ensured the legacy of the Bush tax cuts, certain corners of the conservative media are vilifying McConnell as a sellout. RedState's Erick Erickson—who has led much of the rabble-rousing behind the recent wave of Republican primary challenges—ripped into the deal, calling it the "McConnell Tax Hike": "The Republican Establishment in Washington, D.C. should be burned to the ground and salt spread on the remains," Erickson wrote, arguing that conservatives shouldn't turn to a third party but rather inject "fresh blood into the GOP."

The threat of a primary looms especially heavy for McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2014. In McConnell's home state two years ago, now-Senator Rand Paul defeated the Republican's establishment nominee in the primary. McConnell's approval rating among his party stands at just 59 percent, according to a Public Policy Polling survey of Kentucky from last month. While McConnell isn't likely to lose his spot atop the Senate GOP before 2014, he might hesitate before huddling in a negotiation room with Joe Biden again, lest he ignite another round of conservative criticism.

The intra-party squabbling could torpedo the next round of negotiations. The bill passed last night settles future tax rates, but Congress punted much of the fiscal-cliff crisis forward two months, with the debt ceiling and sequestration cuts left unsettled. While the House has been utterly dysfunctional under Boehner's tenure, at the end of the day the speaker, for all his faults, is more of a pragmatist than the extremists who make up the majority of his caucus. Eric Cantor—a Republican who hails from the party's oppositional wing and has a penchant for sinking deals—is the likely winner if Boehner fails to capture a majority of the vote tomorrow. Obama's desire to avoid a repeat of the debt-ceiling standoff would be futile if Cantor takes the helm in the House.

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