Speaker Boehner for Life

Just when he thinks he’s out, they pulled him back in.

Kevin McCarthy and John Boehner
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, speaks to reporters as House Speaker John Boehner looks on at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Oct. 7, 2015.

Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters

House Speaker John Boehner has been having visions. “I had this terrible nightmare last night that I was trying to get out and I couldn’t get out,” Boehner recently told his ally, Rep. Tom Cole, according to the Hill. “And a hand came reaching, pulling me.”

Boehner, who scheduled his retirement for the end of October, had pledged to stay on until his successor was put in place. But after Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s stunning decision to drop out of the speaker contest, Boehner may have to renew his D.C. lease indefinitely.

McCarthy likely would have won the House Republican “nomination” for speaker in the conference’s closed-door meeting Thursday. But that vote also would have meant nothing. He was reportedly concerned that he could not cobble together a 218-vote majority of the full House in the real election on the floor later this month. “It’s pretty obvious he didn’t have 218 votes,” Rep. Charlie Dent told reporters after the announcement. “And had this gone to the floor, I think there was great concern that maybe he couldn’t get 218 votes and it would have been obviously embarrassing to not be elected speaker.” As if the spectacle he put himself through Thursday wasn’t embarrassing enough.

Who now? The most obvious name at first was Rep. Paul Ryan: chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, 2012 vice presidential candidate, and author of the Obama-era conservative budget blueprints. So obvious was Ryan as a candidate for Great Unifier that he immediately had to put out a statement saying, Oh God, no, no, no, never, ever, ever. Boehner is reportedly still working desperately to get him to change his mind. But why would he want to leave his powerful committee chairmanship to take America’s Worst Job?

Since Democrats have decided to let Republicans resolve this leadership dispute by themselves—and are enjoying what they see—it’s apparently going to take 218 out of 247 Republican votes to elect a speaker. That candidate, whoever he or she is, will need the support of the House Freedom Caucus and its few dozen members who vote as a bloc.

Heading into Thursday’s canceled vote, Freedom Caucus members had endorsed Rep. Daniel Webster—as a means of leverage. They claimed to be willing to vote for McCarthy on the floor if he would meet their demands, which included just about everything up to and including weekly foot rubs. Rep. Dave Brat, who defeated then–Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary and apparently feels it’s his place to rule the country as a freshman backbencher, said the Freedom Caucus wants changes in “rules, policy, process” and wants that “on paper ahead of time,” the Washington Post reported Wednesday night. Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp “said he asked McCarthy to make a public statement opposing efforts by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other establishment-oriented groups to oppose conservative Republican incumbents who have broken with GOP leadership,” according to the Post. It takes some chutzpah for Tea Partiers—who live to bring down “establishment” candidates in primaries—to demand that they be shielded from counter-challenges themselves. And, perhaps most frightening of all for the global economy and those who rely on its continued functioning to “live,” they insist that the next speaker demand concessions in exchange for a hike in the debt ceiling.

Credit McCarthy, at least, for stepping aside instead of making promises he couldn’t keep. Jason Chaffetz, who had tried to position himself as the compromise candidate without generating much interest and is still in the race, would be in a similar bind. In fact, whoever wants to be speaker will have to make these same unacceptable promises. Unless Freedom Caucus members have a sudden change of heart and decide to become responsible adult legislators in the near future, there is no other way to 218 Republican votes. Either meet all of their demands—including a pledge to play chicken with the country’s credit rating and the frail global economy—or don’t bother running. A speaker candidate could try to cut a deal with House Democrats. But once word of that got out, it would be hard to imagine any Republican voting for the candidate who might work hand in hand with the nefarious Nancy Pelosi.

In short: It’s a super crappy situation in the House of Representatives right now.

The only silver lining of McCarthy’s collapse, and all the potential horror that goes with it, is that Boehner has proven himself to be literally irreplaceable as speaker. Boehner himself, who likely has dozens of tee times in the Bahamas reserved for November, can’t be too thrilled with that. But if his service in Washington is extended through the early November debt-ceiling deadline, then he should call up a “clean” debt ceiling increase that takes the country through the 2016 election. What can the House Freedom Caucus do about that? It’s not like they can replace him.