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The revolt against Boehner in historical perspective

- January 6, 2015

John Boehner is on the verge of being reelected House Speaker.  To reach his goal, he must first surmount a challenge from within his own party that threatens to tarnish what should be a triumphant moment.  As we wrote two years ago in “Fighting for the Speakership,” the practice of settling speakership elections within the majority caucus stretches back to the Civil War.  Split votes in caucus are fine, so long as dissidents fall in line when the roll is called on the House floor.
John Boehner receives the Speaker’s gavel from Nancy Pelosi, 2011. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The practice of considering the vote for Speaker as the litmus test of party loyalty (and even membership) began in the late 1920s.  Since then, the only defections – defined as votes for anyone other than the GOP nominee – by the majority party in speakership balloting have been four votes against Newt Gingrich in 1997 and nine against Boehner in 2013.  If today’s anti-Boehner vote picks up a dozen or more supporters, it would represent the modern high water mark of majority party disloyalty.
The last time the majority’s internal divisions kept it from simply imposing the caucus nominee on the House on the first ballot was in 1923, when Progressive Republicans delayed the election of Frederick Gillett as Speaker by two days.  Then, faced with the theoretical possibility that the Progressives could join with Democrats to organize the House, Gillett finally met some of the dissidents’ procedural demands.  Two years later, flush with a larger majority, Gillett’s successor, Nicholas Longworth, effectively read the Progressive members out of the party.  They were allowed to return two years later, only when they publicly swore organizational allegiance to the party.
Boehner has one advantage that Gillett didn’t: He has no worries about Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) reaching across the aisle to create a tea party/Democratic fusion.  With a 58-seat majority in his pocket, why worry about a dozen — or even 25 — dissidents?  The worst that is likely to happen is that the leaders of the revolt will continue to languish on the fringes of the House’s formal power structure.  Leaving them out in the cold, rather than dismissing them from the caucus altogether, would be a small price to pay for a party leader who benefits from projecting cool unflappability.