The Boehner Explainer: Why the House Speaker Is in Danger

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Speaker of the House John Boehner pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on September 10. Boehner is facing increasing dissent within his own party. Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

Watching the Republican presidential debates, a lay observer might think that the GOP is divided between elected "insiders," like Senator Marco Rubio and "outsiders," like businesswoman Carly Fiorina. The truth is that divisions exist between the Congressional Republicans as well. As the leader of the largest Republican majority in the House since 1928, Speaker John Boehner shoulders the unenviable task of pushing the GOP's agenda while dealing with members of the party who want to shut down the federal government...again.

Boehner was reelected to his position as speaker of the house in January. But during the most recent in camera speaker election, 25 members of the GOP voted for various other candidates. Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina, recently introduced a resolution to the House Rules Committee to declare the speaker position "vacant," which would remove Boehner from office in the middle of his term. In House tradition, any speaker on the floor can bring up a Rules resolution during debate. But even if someone like Meadows forced the issue to the floor, it's unlikely that there would be enough dissenting votes to oust Boehner.

Meadows is a member of the group that started the House Freedom Caucus, which has been critical of the GOP's leadership. He was also one of the leaders of the government shutdown in 2013 over the Affordable Care Act, along with Senator Ted Cruz, Republican from Texas.

The dissatisfaction with Boehner mostly stems from the perception—common among Republicans influenced by the Tea Party movement—that the GOP establishment has failed to stand up to President Obama. Members of the house, including Meadows, are pushing for another government shutdown to buttress efforts to defund Planned Parenthood over concerns that the national health organization has profited from selling fetal tissue. For the party's leadership, the question is whether anger over the speaker's perceived failure to fight hard enough could actually lead to his removal.

Boehner, speaking to Politico during a GOP fundraising tour, explained why the party's courage isn't the problem: "Almost all of the donors understand that, you know, without a Republican in the White House, or 60 votes in the Senate, there are limits to what you could accomplish," he said.

Boehner, who spends a significant amount of the year raising funds for House Republicans, says that the Freedom Caucus "doesn't understand I'm as conservative as they are." As a party leader, the widespread disapproval of Congress's performance makes his fundraising job harder, and the political fallout from another shutdown could be disastrous for Republicans if the public blames the majority in Congress rather than Obama.

Congress has to approve a federal budget by September 30, with only a couple of working days scheduled before then. The House is out until Thursday, when the pope will address a joint session of Congress. If the Planned Parenthood dissenters can't be brought into line by Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, budget approval might be delayed beyond then.

Calls for Boehner's removal have been commonplace since 2010 when Republicans took back the House and a Tea Party–charged freshman class vowed to overturn the status quo. His critics have pressed him to use sword-of-Damocles tactics (not raising the debt ceiling, shutting down the government) in order to achieve aims that he and conservatives agree on (ending Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood). Boehner and McConnell loathe such tactics, but have often been unable to stop their Republican colleagues from using them.

A Speaker has never been removed from the position, but several have resigned, including Newt Gingrich. The last serious removal attempt happened in 1910, when the House went through a now famous all night session as Republican dissidents attempted to remove Speaker Joseph "Uncle Joe" Cannon from his chairmanship of the Rules Committee. Cannon was seen as too authoritarian—a charge leveled against Boehner.

But conservative insurgents don't have a Plan B that's acceptable to the majority of the Republican Caucus. If not Boehner, who? It's possible he could announce that this term is his last, which might temper the outcry. But there's been no indication he might retire. Unless that happens, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, he'll be there to kick around for some time to come.