House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) forcefully defended the embattled speaker, John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), telling reporters Thursday that conservatives who wanted to oust Boehner were distracting and dividing Republicans during a series of key showdowns with Democrats.
Viewed as the only viable option for succeeding Boehner, McCarthy’s defense served as a rejection of overtures from some conservatives who have been privately suggesting that, if they succeeded in a coup attempt on the speaker, they would support the genial Californian in a smooth succession.
McCarthy’s public declaration, at the weekly leadership news conference afetr a meeting of the GOP caucus, followed private signals that he does not want to assume the speakership in such a fashion because it would bitterly divide Republicans and set a precedent by which future speakers could be ousted midterm by a rump ideological caucus.
“If we deal in this type of debate, we only weaken ourselves from what we want to achieve,” McCarthy said, as Boehner and other top leaders stood next to him.
The proclamation came after the majority leader and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee who remains deeply respected among rank-and-file lawmakers, issued statements to Politico on Wednesday night defending Boehner.
Late Thursday morning, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the No. 4 member of the leadership team, also issued a statement defending Boehner’s hold on power. She also denied rumors that had spread throughout the summer that she was considering a challenge to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).
The moves also came as some cracks appeared in the conservative flank’s Freedom Caucus, the newly formed coalition of roughly 40 conservatives who regularly oppose leadership initiatives. One member, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), resigned his caucus membership Wednesday over a strategy that would likely lead to a shutdown of most of the federal government in two weeks in a long-shot bid to restrict federal funding of Planned Parenthood.
That move would, he wrote in a letter, “alienate the public from the pro-life cause at precisely the time when undercover videos of Planned Parenthood’s barbaric practices are turning public opinion in our favor.”
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), one of the Republicans who had previously signed a letter vowing to shut down the government rather than support a stopgap funding bill that did not hit Planned Parenthood, stood with Boehner at the Thursday morning event, lending a symbolic show of support to his leadership.
Some Freedom Caucus members suggested that any move against Boehner could be two months away, combining the outcome of how Planned Parenthood funding is handled along with the much broader budget debate set to come in negotiations that would last until at least Thanksgiving.
“There are two questions here,” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) told reporters Thursday.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), one of those opposed to Boehner as speaker, said the “double whammy” is Planned Parenthood funding and the 2011 Budget Control Act spending limits that Democrats are demanding some relief from both for defense and domestic agency budgets.
Salmon vowed to oppose Boehner in any future vote — “however it comes up” — but emphasized that his group was not particularly organized at the moment. “I don’t think anybody has an itchy trigger finger,” he said in an interview Wednesday night.
Boehner said Thursday that he would not lose a vote on his stewardship, deflecting a question of his level of confidence with a one word answer: “Very.”
An attempt to oust the House speaker is complicated and likely requires a small band of Republicans to lock arms with Democrats. Any member could file a motion asking to vacate the speaker’s chair, and a simple majority would force a rare midterm vote on a new speaker.
With 247 Republicans, a bloc of 30 rebels would deny Boehner the bare majority from his side of the aisle and require him to draw votes from Democrats — a scenario that could further weaken him.
Despite the outward displays of confidence, leadership has been consumed by the issue since returning last week from a 40-day recess. The legislative calendar has been adjusted to delay consideration of the government funding bill so that instead anti-abortion legislation favored by conservatives could be considered.
By Thursday morning, there was still no clear path to keep the government open, Boehner said. “We’re going to continue those conversations, but we haven’t made any decisions yet.”
This debate will be quickly followed by deadlines for budget authority on the federal highway program, the debt ceiling on the Treasury Department’s borrowing authority and then potentially a broader budget framework that might ease some spending constraints on federal agencies.
“It is a murderer’s row of issues from a conservative standpoint, so I think it’s going to be a tremendous test of his leadership,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a leader of the Freedom Caucus, said Wednesday evening.
In his support of Boehner, McCarthy gave a lengthy defense of the successes that Republicans have had this year designed to deflect criticism from the likes of Mulvaney, Salmon and Fleming, who say that there has been no difference in Congress now that Republicans control both the House and Senate.
McCarthy noted that Congress approved a bipartisan plan to permanently fix the method for paying doctors that provide services to Medicare patients, a troublesome issue that for years had required annual patches, and in exchange received a modest reform to the entitlement program. He also cited the approval of presidential trade authority, something that had languished for more than a decade.
“That’s a distraction,” McCarthy said of a potential vote to oust Boehner, explaining his message to Republicans: Focus on what we were brought here to do. We have an election every to pick our speaker, we’ve had that election and now let’s move on.”