There is a growing groundswell of sentiment in the highly fractured Republican House caucus to seek to replace John Boehner as Speaker. Such an overthrow mid-session would be very unusual. In fact it hasn’t happened in over a century. Hardliners in his party believe that he caves too easily, and they are particularly incensed at his lukewarm support for a fight over Planned Parenthood that puts a government shutdown in play. Meanwhile, Democrats have long been unhappy with his inability to bring along his caucus on issues for which there is majority support of all House members.
This situation may come to a head shortly, although Boehner and his allies claim that they have the votes to stop it. The House Freedom Caucus are canvassing members to see if they have the votes for a motion to vacate the chair. This unusual maneuver would force a vote on the Speakership and, under normal circumstances, only requires 30 members to support it. Last January, an abortive attempt included 25 backers, so the goal is within reach. But, as with so much in this odd political time, circumstances may not be normal as I explain below.
This confluence of events places Democrats in the unusual position of controlling the outcome, that is if they wish to do so. At the very least, they might be able to squeeze some concessions for a promise not to meddle in this internecine dispute.
The way it works is as follows. You may be surprised to hear that the Speaker is elected by a majority of the entire House. One would think that the party in control would be able to pick its own leader, but no. Normally it is the practice of the minority party to vote against the choice of their opponents. After all, which Democratic member wants to explain to his constituents why he voted for a Republican Speaker? If they follow this policy, then Boehner could be ousted by a small fraction of dissidents in his caucus, either 29 or 30 depending on circumstances. On the other hand, Democrats could just vote Present. This makes the vote much easier for Boehner as it would then take 124 votes to oust him, i.e. a full majority of his caucus.
The question is, should Pelosi and crew meddle? She has indicated little enthusiasm for doing this, possibly because it sets a dangerous precedent that might rebound on Democrats in the future. But the temptation to get a ransom, perhaps restoring the Export-Import Bank or removing domestic spending caps, must be high.