Why John Boehner Should Use Democratic Support to Maintain Power

House Speaker John Boehner should respond to threats of an overthrow from the extreme right in the Republican caucus (the House Freedom Caucus) by being open to relying upon Democrats for the support necessary to remain speaker. 

First some procedural background: if House conservatives offer a motion to vacate the chair (i.e. to depose Boehner from the Speakership), the entire House would vote on the motion, and Boehner would need 218 votes to survive. If he received less, the speakership would remain vacant (and the House paralyzed) until another candidate could secure 218 votes in an election. 

Thus, Boehner could afford to lose the far right members who have frequently challenged him and disrupted his plans over the last 5 years if he secured enough support from Democrats to maintain 218 votes on the motion to vacate the chair (alternatively, if Democrats abstain from the vote in large numbers, it would dramatically increase the number of Republicans that had to vote against Boehner to depose him because the motion requires a majority to succeed).

CNN's Manu Raju reported that many House Democrats would be willing to consider saving Boehner's speakership in exchange for some unspecified concessions on his part. Boehner would be wise to take them up on their offer.

Doing so makes more sense than trying to pacify the ultraconservatives who seem to have little conception of what is possible under divided government. They have made it highly difficult for Boehner to govern, and given the string of major deadlines approaching for Congress, it seems impossible to both appease them and keep the government functioning.

Relying on Democrats to maintain his Speakership would undoubtedly infuriate these conservatives and their allies at interest groups and in the conservative media. But, if Boehner is thinking pragmatically, that potential reaction should not bother him for 2 key reasons. 

First, at the end of this Congress, the sixty-five year old Boehner will have served as Speaker for 3 Congresses (6 years). Only eight men in history have served more than 3 terms as Speaker (Henry Clay, Andrew Stevenson, Joe Cannon, James "Champ" Clark, Sam Rayburn, John MacCormack, Thomas P "Tip" O'Neil, and J. Dennis Hastert).

With the exception of the legendary Rayburn, no man has served more than 5 full terms as Speaker (O'Neil served five terms, Clay served 4 non-continuous full terms and 2 partial ones, MacCormack 4 full terms and 1 partial term, Canon, Clark, and Hastert 4 terms, and Stevensen 3 full terms and 1 partial one). 

Thus, historical precedent indicates that Boehner would be highly unlikely to serve more than 1 more term as Speaker (and definitely no more than 2) after this Congress. Boehner has also seen retirement rumors swirl around him over the past few years as his closest friends in Congress have departed

With each passing year, Boehner has also faced increasing headaches in managing the fractious Republican caucus. When asked why Boehner would want to remain Speaker, friend and ally Mike Simpson (R-ID) laughed and told Roll Call, '"That's the question."'

All of this indicates that Boehner has little to fear in terms of political repercussions from courting Democratic support. He's not likely to run too many (if any) more campaigns in his conservative Ohio Congressional district. As a result, the political risk posed to him by extreme conservatives or antagonized activists would be relatively minimal. 

Additionally, Boehner is at the point in his career where he is likely considering what his legacy will be. Given divided government, Boehner must have bipartisan support to accomplish any significant legislation of the kind that would burnish his legacy. To pass a law, he needs either President Obama's signature or the support of enough Democrats in both houses of Congress to override a veto. 

In practical terms, that means that any major legislation is going to incorporate some Democratic ideas and priorities. Boehner cannot simply pass conservative legislation with the support of the 218 most conservative members of the House without running into President Obama's veto power.

Thus, relying on Democratic votes to maintain the Speakership seems to present little downside for Boehner. Any concessions that he would make to his Democratic saviors are unlikely to be more significant than the concessions that he would have to make to get President Obama's signature on legislation (or to procure enough Democratic support for a bill to override a veto). 

Even if he grants votes on Democratic priorities that would not otherwise receive a vote in a Republican-led House, those agenda items (things like increased domestic spending) might still die at any number of choke points in the legislative process (on the House floor, in conference committee, in the Senate, etc). Alternatively, because of the president's role in the legislative process, they might end up in the statute books regardless of whether Boehner granted them votes in the House. 

One might argue that John Boehner, loyal party man, would recoil from dividing his party and surviving with Democratic votes. While this is undoubtedly true, one could also argue that achieving legislative accomplishments is the best way to prove that Republicans can govern and, thus, to maintain control of Congress. 

An additional benefit to a survival plan that involved receiving support from, say, the 200 most centrist Republicans and 20-25 most moderate Democrats, would be that Boehner would no longer have to face the most conservative House Republicans humiliating him, or undermining his power. Effectively they would be neutered on most votes because their support would not be essential, and their biggest weapon (to threaten to depose Boehner) would be useless. 

About the only practical downside that one could imagine to such a deal would be that Boenher would no longer be able to pass the most conservative legislation possible through the House in order to bolster his negotiating position with the more moderate Senate and President Obama. Additionally, he might risk losing Republican support for compromise legislation because the right might lead a concerted campaign to brand any Republican who votes for Boehner negotiated legislation as "RINOs" (Republicans in Name Only). 

Perhaps the only true risk to Boehner would be that pragmatic House conservatives, who are likely as tired as of the antics of the House Freedom Caucus as Boehner is, might face withering pressure to abandon him or face reprisals, including potential primary challenges. If that happened, Boehner might not be able to get to 218 votes without substantial Democratic support. Relying on hundreds of Democrats to keep him in power would make Boehner's situation untenable.

Democrats would threaten to abandon him every time that he brought conservative legislation, supported by the majority of the House, to the floor. Alternatively, appease Democrats to too great of a degree, and Boehner would put his Republican backers in an impossible spot. He'd be held captive by both sides, and would effectively be a man without a country.

He might eventually lose the Speakership under such a scenario, as Republican support slowly bled away under assault from right wing groups and media personalities.

Unless Boehner fears this possibility, however, seeking Democratic support seems to make the most sense from the perspective of both his legacy and his ability to best manage the House and govern. The House Freedom Caucus members have been nothing but a thorn in his side over the past five years, and he has a real opportunity to neutralize their biggest threat and give himself some room to maneuver. 

Whether Boehner is sufficiently bold to take such dramatic action remains to be seen, but it would be in his own best interest.