Commentary Magazine


The Boehner-Cantor Rift and the Speaker Election

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor broke with Speaker John Boehner on the fiscal cliff deal vote yesterday, fueling speculation that he may challenge Boehner in Thursday’s Speaker election. At the Guardian, Jim Antle writes

It’s rare for the top two members of the House leadership to split on an important vote. Bob Michel, the hapless leader of the House Republicans during a long period in the minority, and Newt Gingrich voted differently on the 1990 “read my lips” tax increase. They split again over the 1994 assault weapons ban.

Even less common is a House speaker and majority leader going their separate ways on big-ticket legislation. The last major example is when the Democratic-controlled House debate funding President George W Bush’s surge in Iraq. House speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed the measure to proceed to the floor and voted no. House majority leader Steny Hoyer voted yes.

House speakers typically don’t even vote at all unless it is necessary to break a tie. So it may have been a clarifying moment when speaker of the House John Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor parted ways on the deal that ended the long national nightmare known as the fiscal cliff. Boehner voted for the bipartisan agreement negotiated between Vice-President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; Cantor breathed the final moments of life into the opposition.

As Antle notes, despite conservative frustration with Boehner, Cantor is the only one who could potentially rally enough members behind him to seize the gavel. And Breitbart reports that there may be growing support for it:

“At least 20 House Republican members have gotten together, discussed this and want to unseat Speaker Boehner–and are willing to do what it takes to do it,” [American Action Majority spokesperson Ron] Meyer said. “That’s more than enough to get the job done, but the one problem these guys face is they need a leader to coalesce behind.” 

Meyer said the conservatives have considered House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) to take the helm after Boehner is knocked out. His opposition from the right to the Senate fiscal cliff deal that Vice President Joe Biden cut with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is a sign Cantor may try for the job. 

AMA is hardly the only conservative entity aware of the rekindled effort afoot to unseat Boehner. Another conservative with inside knowledge of the effort told Breitbart News that the movement has “new focus and juice,” and if enough members go to Boehner telling him they won’t support his re-election, that Americans should “watch for him to resign gracefully.”

AMA has been one of Boehner’s most vocal critics, so it’s not clear how much of this is just wishful thinking and how much reflects an actual burgeoning revolt. For one, Cantor’s office has downplayed his rift with Boehner, saying he stands behind the current speaker. And many members might be concerned about shaking up House GOP leadership right before the debt ceiling debate. 

Then there’s the question of how much of this the Boehner opposition brought on itself. After all, the speaker’s Plan B deal that was killed by his internal critics was better in comparison to what ended up going through yesterday. Conservatives have legitimate complaints about the final deal, and legitimate grievances about the closed-door process of negotiations. But Boehner had to play the hand he was dealt, and unfortunately for Republicans it’s been stacked against them since the November election.