For the first time in 105 years, a speaker of the House is the target of what parliamentarians call a “motion to vacate the chair” – and what other people might call an attempt to throw the speaker out on his ear.
But John Boehner greeted this unwelcome status Wednesday with studied sangfroid.
“Listen,” Boehner said in a news conference when asked by Chad Pergram of Fox News how he would put down the insurrection. “You’ve got a member here and a member there who are off the reservation. No big deal.”
So, asked Jennifer Steinhauer of The New York Times, would he hold a vote on the resolution just to prove that he has support?
“Uh, listen. This is one member, all right?” he replied. “I’ve got broad support amongst my colleagues, and – and, frankly, it isn’t even deserving of a vote.”
Had he spoken with Rep. Mark Meadows, the North Carolina Republican who filed the no-confidence resolution Tuesday?
“I’ve not,” Boehner said with nonchalance. “Why?”
It was a cool performance by a man who usually is a wellspring of emotion. New footage, to be broadcast next week, shows him choking up and crying – in an interview with the Golf Channel.
But maybe the resolution really isn’t a big deal. The motion, in the highly unlikely event it were adopted, would declare the office of the House speaker “vacant.” But, in a sense, the office of the speaker already is pretty much vacant. Boehner is in charge, but only nominally. He is unable to move legislation and is rendered powerless by his struggles to placate about 50 conservative holdouts, including Meadows.
The conservatives have blocked action on big items such as immigration, while embarrassing GOP leaders by holding out for pet causes such as the recent attempt to defend the Confederate flag. On education, the Export-Import Bank and other pieces of legislation, conservative hard-liners have forced Boehner to pull bills from the floor or postpone their consideration. On Wednesday, the majority opted to begin the August recess early rather than take action on a long-term highway bill that has bipartisan support in the Senate.
Even if the House acts on the Meadows resolution, there’s no reason to think it would get the support of more than the two dozen Republicans.
“People are stunned. People are angry that somebody would pull this stunt,” Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Pergram. “I thought we had gotten past all of this. It seems odd and bizarre.”
If Walden thinks this is bizarre, he should wait until the fall, when Boehner will have to get Senate agreement and President Obama’s signature on a full slate of issues, including the highway and education bills. Boehner, at his nothing-to-see-here news conference, breezily predicted “smooth sailing” in the fall.
But Andy Taylor of the Associated Press noted that Boehner, to get these bills enacted, will need to make compromises that are “going to make your right flank unhappy and test you again like you’ve been tested by this one member.”
“Legislating is hard work,” the speaker said.
Yes, and Boehner is making it harder by attempting the futile strategy of governing with only Republican votes. This puts him on the fool’s errand of trying to satisfy ideologues such as Meadows.
If Boehner were instead to try a more bipartisan approach, he would further irk the Meadows crowd, but he would get things done. And Democrats have previously indicated they would help him keep the speakership if conservatives were to stage a coup.
Meadows, who had been punished and forgiven for earlier defiance of leadership, inadvertently showed why Boehner is bound to fail if he continues to woo the far right. In the first clause of his anti-Boehner resolution, Meadows writes that Boehner “has endeavored to consolidate power and centralize decision-making.” But the second clause says that Boehner “has, through inaction, caused the power of Congress to atrophy.”
The second accusation, about congressional atrophy, is certainly true, but that’s a direct result of Boehner’s failure to consolidate power – because he’s being held hostage by the likes of Meadows.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.