When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) announced his opposition to the bipartisan fiscal agreement, it caused quite a stir. Cantor is not only a very influential GOP figure, but his comments came before House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had even taken a position on the bill, and certainly gave the impression that the two were sharply at odds.
As speculation intensified – was this a precursor to Cantor challenging Boehner for the Speaker’s gavel? – the Majority Leader’s office tried to lower the temperature. Cantor’s chief spokesperson insisted that the Virginia Republican “stands with” Boehner, and rumors to the contrary were “silly, non-productive and untrue.”
But Cantor really didn’t stand with the Speaker, and speculation wasn’t – and isn’t – silly at all.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy broke with Speaker John Boehner Monday night, voting against a multi-trillion tax package designed to avert the fiscal cliff.
The decision to abandon Boehner – which came after Boehner’s leadership team whipped not only rank and file members but even other lower ranking members of leadership – will almost certainly set off a furious round of speculation about the future of his speakership, less than 48 hours before members are scheduled to vote on it.
It’s worth emphasizing, as John Stanton reported, that both Cantor and McCarthy waited to register a vote until the bill had 218 supporters, paying Boehner “the courtesy” of registering a preference without actively trying to bring down the entire bill.
But that doesn’t make up for the fact that when it came time for the biggest House vote in the last year, the Speaker was on one side and his top two lieutenants were on the other. Boehner is regularly ignored by his rank-and-file members, but it’s one thing when backbenchers go their own way on key pieces of legislation; it’s something else when the GOP leadership is split down the middle.
The next question, of course, is the short-term consideration: what happens tomorrow when House Republicans elect their Speaker for the next Congress?
The working assumption, which I’ve generally accepted, was that Boehner was in deep trouble if he passed the fiscal agreement by relying overwhelmingly on Democratic votes. There was no magic number, per se, but if the Speaker relied on 25 to 30 House Republicans to pass the bill, it would amount to a practical vote of no confidence.
But when the dust settled overnight, it was hard to miss the fact that 85 House Republicans voted with Boehner in support of the measure. Sure, the Speaker had to forgo the “Hastert Rule” and rely on a majority of the minority, and 151 House GOP members went the other way, but it’s tough to see 85 votes as a career-ender for Boehner.
Over the weekend, Politico reported, “It’s a truth that fire-breathing conservatives will have to handle: John Boehner isn’t going anywhere as speaker of the House.” To be sure, that was before the Senate agreement was reached and three days before last night’s vote, but it nevertheless seems accurate, barring 11th-hour drama.
The vote, after all, is tomorrow, and as of this minute, Boehner has no opposition. This has been an ugly couple of weeks for the Speaker, but he appears to have survived – weakened, but still standing. This, like the intra-party divisions, won’t help Boehner govern in the next Congress, but it should be enough to help him keep his gavel.