How To Oust A House Speaker (Hint: Don't Even Try)

Mar 7, 2015
Originally published on March 9, 2015 12:53 pm

Here's one story in Washington that just won't go away.

It's the tale of conservatives who are frustrated with House Speaker John Boehner and want to replace him midsession.

The latest murmurs of a coup surfaced after more than 50 Republicans voted against Boehner's plan last week to avert a partial-shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security.

But ousting a sitting speaker is nearly impossible, and that may be why the would-be Republican plotters aren't trying to make it happen.

Why is it so hard?

Step one would be a motion to vacate the speaker's chair, says University of Maryland political scientist Frances Lee.

"It's a privileged motion," Lee explains. "Any member who wants to offer it can offer it."

That seems easy enough. But the motion to vacate the speaker's chair would be met quickly with another procedural motion, a motion to table.

Plus, keep in mind speakers aren't just elected by the party that controls the House of Representatives, they're elected by the entire House. For the plot to work, the band of Republicans that wants to get rid of Boehner would need Democrats to go along.

But in this case, the slice of the GOP that's grumbling about Boehner is particularly conservative, so it's highly unlikely that the group could find common ground with Democrats.

"In this case, those who are unhappy with the speaker are on the right side of the Republican party, and not in a good position to coalesce with members across the aisle around another candidate," Lee says.

That could leave the whole plan dead in the water.

But for argument's sake, say the motion to vacate succeeds and Boehner is successfully pushed out. Now what?

"The difficulty, of course, is finding someone who can garner a majority," Lee says.

It's not enough to just say Boehner needs to go. House lawmakers would need to find someone to replace him — which is easier said than done.

Twenty-five lawmakers cast votes against Boehner in January's speaker election. But the next-most popular candidate only received 12 votes, a tiny fraction of the number needed to elect a new speaker.

Even if things got to the point of new nominations, Republicans who back Boehner would probably just nominate him again, and they say he has enough support to block any other Republican.

"Just the Republicans who are dissatisfied with Boehner right now, they're not a majority of the House of Representatives," Lee says. "They're not even a majority of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives."

Here's an alternate scenario: Boehner could step aside, embarrassed, and Republicans could agree to rally behind someone else. But who would it be? No one has made a serious attempt to position themselves for the speakership.

That leaves us back where we started, with a group of conservatives unhappy with a speaker they can do little about.

Lee put it this way: "So that's the difficulty they face. It's really a political difficulty more than it's a procedural difficulty."

So, can the House ditch its speaker mid-term?

Technically yes. In reality, conservatives aren't launching that plot any time soon.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Some conservatives are plainly frustrated with House Speaker John Boehner and want to replace him mid-term. The latest murmurs of a coup surfaced after more than 50 Republicans voted against Mr. Boehner's plan last week to avert a partial shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OCEAN'S ELEVEN")

MATT DAMON: (As Linus Caldwell) Smash-and-grab job, huh?

BRAD PITT: (As Rusty Ryan) It's slightly more complicated than that.

SIMON: Spoiler alert - just like George Clooney's plan in the movie "Ocean's Eleven," ousting the sitting speaker is apparently nearly impossible. And maybe that's why would-be plotters aren't really trying to make it happen. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: This story begins with an improbable scheme.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OCEAN'S ELEVEN")

CARL REINER: (As Saul Bloom) I have a question. Say we get into the cage and through the security doors there and down the elevator we can't move and past the guards with the guns and into the vault we can't open...

PITT: (As Rusty Ryan) Without being seen by the cameras.

GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Danny Ocean) Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that.

REINER: (As Saul Bloom) Yeah, well, say we do all that - we're just supposed to walk out of there with $150 million in cash on us without getting stopped?

SUMMERS: No, members of Congress aren't trying to pull off a heist, but they may as well be. It's just that hard. Here to walk us through the process is Frances Lee. She's a congressional expert from the University of Maryland. Step one...

FRANCES LEE: There is a motion to vacate the speaker's chair. It's a privileged motion. Any member who wants to offer it can offer it.

SUMMERS: This part seems easy enough. But the motion to vacate the speaker's chair would be met quickly with another procedural motion - a motion to table. Plus, keep in mind, speakers aren't just elected by the party that controls the House of Representatives. They're elected by the entire House. That throws a wrench into things. So for this whole thing to work, the band of Republicans that want to get rid of Boehner would need Democrats to go along with the plan. But in this case, the slice of the GOP that's grumbling about Boehner is particularly conservative, so it is highly unlikely that they could find common ground with Democrats.

LEE: In this case, those who are unhappy with the speaker are on the right side of the Republican Party and not in a good position to coalesce with members across the aisle around another candidate.

SUMMERS: That could leave the whole plan dead in the water. But say the motion to vacate succeeds and Boehner was successfully pushed out - OK, now what?

LEE: The difficulty, of course, is finding someone who can garner a majority.

SUMMERS: It's not enough to just say Boehner needs to go. House lawmakers would then need to find someone to replace him. That is easier said than done. Twenty-five votes were cast against Boehner in January's speaker election, but the next most popular candidate only received 12 votes. That's a tiny fraction of the number needed to elect a new speaker. And plus, even if things got to the point of new nominations, Republicans who back Boehner would probably just nominate him again. And they say he has enough support to block any other Republican.

LEE: Just the Republicans who are dissatisfied with Boehner right now, they're not a majority of the House of Representatives. They're not even a majority of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives.

SUMMERS: Here's an alternate scenario - Boehner could step aside embarrassed and Republicans could agree to rally behind someone else. But who would it be? At this point, nobody has made a serious attempt to position themselves for the speakership. That leaves us back where we started - with a speaker that some conservatives are critical of, but concede they can do little about. Lee put it this way.

LEE: So that's the difficulty they face. It's really a political difficulty more than it's a procedural difficulty.

SUMMERS: So can the House ditch its speaker mid-term? The answer's technically yes, but in reality, it's probably easier to knock off a Las Vegas casino. Juana Summers, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.