Speaker John Boehner's rocky relationship with conservatives in the House of Representatives just got a little more complicated.
On Tuesday night, hours before the House was about to wrap up one of its last days before a six-week break, a soft-spoken two-term congressman surprised almost everybody and filed a rare "motion to vacate the chair" against Speaker Boehner.
The resolution is exactly what it sounds like: Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.) wants Boehner out of his speaker's chair and to force an election for a new one.
Analysts and lawmakers questioned Meadows's motives, especially since he introduced his challenge in a way to cause limited damage to Boehner. But it could make Boehner's ability to control an increasingly uncontrollable caucus even more difficult. Here's what you need to know about it.
What exactly is Meadows trying to do?
When Meadows, one of the party's most conservative lawmakers, decided he wanted to challenge Speaker Boehner's leadership, he had two options:
- Introduce the challenge in the form of a question of privilege. The century-old precedence of privilege means this issue is so important it takes precedence over everything else the House is doing. The House would then vote in two days on electing a new speaker.
- Introduce the challenge as a resolution, which then winds its way like any other bill through committee to be considered.
He chose option No. 2, thereby taking away the urgency from his proposition and almost guaranteeing there will not actually be a vote to elect a new speaker.
So then why did Meadows issue the challenge?
That's a good question. Meadows said he wanted to start a "family discussion" among conservatives who feel marginalized in the House.
"It's really more about trying to have a conversation on making this place work, where everybody's voice matters, where there's not a punitive culture," he said.
But was this the best way to go about it?
Some of his Republican colleagues openly questioned Meadows's motives. Maybe he wanted to fundraise off the "gimmick," muttered Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to Washington Post's congressional reporter Mike DeBonis.
Meadows isn't saying whether he'll push for an actual vote to elect a new speaker or call for a slightly less serious but no-less-embarrassing vote of no-confidence against Boehner.
The challenge's lack of clarity makes it especially difficult for Boehner to respond, said American University's Patrick Griffin, a former top congressional aide to President Bill Clinton.
"I think that's part of the struggle that Speaker Boehner has to understand -- what do they want?" he said.
Why is this happening now?
As with everything in politics and life, there's a backstory.
The tea party coalition and Boehner have had a contentious relationship since the conservative coalition's rise in 2010. Year after year, vote after vote, Boehner appeared caught in between the two major factions in his own party, often unable to pass major legislation without Democrats coming to his rescue.
But Politico's Jake Sherman and Lauren French reported Boehner's team didn't see this coming, even though Boehner and Meadows recently had a spat.
Meadows is the chair of a subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform committee. Last month, Boehner kicked Meadows out of that chair to punish Meadows for voting against trade legislation. (Boehner later reinstated Meadows in the face of conservative outrage.)
Griffin said he thinks Boehner's leadership had to expect this was coming from an increasingly unruly caucus.
"In this political world that we're in today, there's no downside for making a scene," he said.
Has this kind of thing happened before?
So, unofficial challenges to a speaker are percolating behind closed doors, experts say. There were at least two coup attempts against Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in the '90s (that Boehner himself participated in).
"On any given day, a member is unhappy [with leadership]," said David Rehr, a public policy professor at George Washington University.
What's rare is for the discontent to bubble up to the surface and make headlines.
The last legislative challenge to a speaker came in 1910, when Rep. George Norris (R-Neb.) led a charge to strip Speaker Joe Cannon of his absolute power.
He wasn't trying to unseat the speaker, but with the help of Democrats, he did succeed in taking some of Cannon's power away.
Does this challenge have a chance?
Not a chance. To be sure, there are some conservatives who support Meadows, and the conservative Freedom Works organization quickly endorsed the move.
But just like a century ago, its success would depend on Democrats jumping on board, and Democratic leaders have signaled they're not interested.
Instead, they're having a "chuckle," Griffin said, at the intraparty antics that only fuel a narrative of a chaotic and extreme Republican party.
And it is a pretty bad situation for Boehner, even though he's not in danger of losing his job. This threat comes right before the six-week recess, which Boehner and his leadership team had hoped to spend rallying support to vote down President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.
Now he faces headlines and lawmakers questioning, once again, his ability to do his job.
"If you have to work this hard to keep your own party in check," Griffin wondered, "how do you then create a foundation to work with the opposition and still try to govern?"