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Despite criticism, Boehner likely to win 2nd term

11:10 PM, Jan 2, 2013   |    comments
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By Deirdre Shesgreen, Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - "Is Boehner finished as Speaker?" blared a headline at the top of the conservative Drudge Report website on Wednesday morning.

That question got fresh traction after the Ohio Republican on Tuesday helped ensure passage of a "fiscal cliff" deal reviled by a majority of his GOP troops: There's more grumbling among conservatives about John Boehner's leadership skills. There are new questions about whether Boehner's top deputy has his eye on the speaker's chair. And conservative reporters are writing breathless stories, like the one on Drudge, about a mini-plot to oust Boehner.

So what are the chances of a surprise coup Thursday?

"Zero," said Charles Stewart, a political scientist at MIT and expert on political leadership.

Despite all the grousing and discontent, it's a virtual certainty that Boehner will sail to re-election as speaker of the House on Thursday.

Stewart and others say it would be both logistically and politically tough to defeat Boehner. For starters, no one has stepped up to challenge Boehner in what will be a public vote on the House of Representatives floor. Like other speakers, Boehner has used both carrots and sticks to woo allies and punish rebels. And the band of conservatives who are unhappy with him is relatively small, albeit very vocal.

"It's hard for me to see an internal candidate who would challenge Boehner successfully," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who said there was only an "outside chance" of a surprise result Thursday.

The reason? "Most of the Republicans in the House, even if they are upset with how he's handled things, like him personally, owe him something because he's campaigned tirelessly for many of them, and don't have a great alternative," Ornstein said.

Political experts say it's also a decent bet, barring a major scandal, that Boehner will hold on to his gavel for the duration of the 113th Congress - although his grip on it might seem pretty weak at times.

That doesn't mean he hasn't taken a beating in recent weeks. He was slammed last month for his so-called Plan B, a fall-back bill he floated in the fiscal cliff talks to raise taxes on those making more than $1 million a year. And now he's being pilloried for allowing a vote on the Senate fiscal cliff bill, which conservatives hated for its lack of spending cuts.

Those moves and others have opponents gunning for him - and hard.

"He capitulated last night," said Ron Meyer, a spokesman for American Majority Action, a conservative activist group that is leading the anti-Boehner charge. "I think he will be punished for his capitulation."

Meyer said he knows of a "serious plan" involving more than 20 House Republican lawmakers to block Boehner's re-election Thursday. "There's paper going around right now about how to get a secret ballot first and then . . . what our options are after that," he said.

Can he name one or two people involved in this plot? "Absolutely not," he said. "They'd be destroyed."

He also conceded that his preferred replacement candidates - he named Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, among others - have given no hint of plans to oppose Boehner.

Still, Boehner opponents were gleeful about remarks made in the wake of Tuesday's vote by Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. Price reportedly told Breitbart, a conservative online news outlet, that it was time for "red state leadership" in the House."Price's statement is the first sign that the rift is spilling out into the public," Breitbart reported. "The statement will likely send shock waves through the GOP caucus." And on Wednesday, Steve Stockman, a former member of Congress who won back his old seat in November, said he would vote against Boehner's re-election."This is not something I do lightly, but out of bedrock conservative principle and a dire need to save this nation from its current course," Stockman said in a statement. "We cannot tolerate betrayal of conservative principle and economic reality."

Asked for a response to Stockman's announcement and other anti-Boehner rumblings, the Ohio Republican's spokesman, Michael Steel, said simply: "Rep. Boehner expects to be elected speaker tomorrow."

And Boehner's many allies in the House GOP conference scoff at the talk of toppling Boehner.

Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, recently dismissed it as blather from "groups on the outside who raise money (by) attacking Republicans." He said that Boehner is "stronger than ever" and will have no trouble winning a new term.

And Stewart, the MIT historian, notes that no speaker in history has ever lost a House floor re-election vote.

"Any strategy at this point is unlikely to work," he said. He noted that Boehner already won re-election in a secret-ballot contest in early November within the GOP conference.

"If you strike at the king, you have to kill him," Stewart said. "He's already demonstrated a willingness to remove people from committees when they're troublesome, so you could see that happening again."

He was referring to Boehner's move last month to strip four lawmakers from committee posts after they regularly bucked the GOP leadership on key votes.

"Speakers are in a position to do a lot of favors for people, and they hold a consider amount of power," noted Ron Peters, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and author of The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective.

From committee assignments to travel budgets, GOP leaders have plenty of perks (and weapons) at their disposal. Perhaps most importantly, Peters noted, "speaker's control access to the floor, and if you want to move your own preferred legislation, you need to have the leadership behind you."

Boehner has also built up plenty of chits among his GOP troops. He raised more than $25 million through his leadership PAC and his regular campaign account in 2012, much of which he then doled out to GOP candidates. He also crisscrossed the country, serving as the star at fundraisers and campaign events for Republicans.

Given their clout, perhaps it's no wonder that House speakers rarely face a serious internal threat.

"The leader has to become a liability to the caucus," Peters said. "That was the case with Jim Wright and that was the case with Newt Gingrich."

Wright, a congressman from Texas who served as speaker in the late 1980s, resigned amid an ethics scandal. And Gingrich, the ex-Georgia congressman who served as speaker in the 1990s, resigned in the face of a challenge from then-Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., after the GOP suffered steep election losses attributed in part to Gingrich's polarizing personality.

Gingrich survived an attempted coup in 1997, when other leading Republicans plotted to confront him and demand his resignation. Boehner was reportedly involved in the effort, although he has denied that. In any case, Gingrich heard about the plan and quashed it.

Peters said any similar plans to oust Boehner, now or later, are "far-fetched." He may not look like the strongest House speaker, he said, but "I assume he will remain speaker for the duration" of the 113th Congress.

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