WASHINGTON -- John Boehner is the speaker of the House. But after enduring (another) week in which the limits of his power within the Republican conference were on stark display, the operative question within GOP circles is how long he can -- and wants to -- hold that coveted perch.
Last week, Boehner, Ohio, allowed a "clean" debt-ceiling increase to come to the floor, despite the fact that he knew the vast majority of Republicans would oppose it. The measure passed the House with the support of just 28 of the 232 Republicans. (That's just 12 percent.)
A formal effort to replace Boehner is now underway, launched by the Senate Conservatives Fund. The group is keeping an online whip list of which members stand where on replacing Boehner and has plans to pressure conservative lawmakers to come out for or against him long before the November elections. Rep. Raul Labrador, Idaho, has said that if Boehner tries to pass immigration reform, "it should cost him his speakership."
And there are plenty of Boehner allies who wonder privately why he would want a job leading a conference that doesn't want to be led -- and who see signs that he is planning his exit strategy. "Several of John's best friends are leaving Congress," said one high-level Republican well-versed in House politics, noting that Sens. Saxby Chambliss, Ga., and Tom Coburn, Okla., and Reps. Tom Latham, Iowa, and Doc Hastings, Wash., are retiring, while Rep. Mike Simpson, Idaho, faces a serious primary challenge. "Senior staff has already departed. He attacked conservative groups -- rightly so. And he is looking for plenty of sunshine heading his way."
Publicly, Boehner, has been unequivocal about his future plans. He has filed for re-election to his Ohio House seat and looks like he has a lock to win this November. In the summer of 2012, he told Bloomberg News: "Every two years is a decision about just what you want to do, but I fully expect to remain speaker."
Boehner insiders insist that nothing that has happened over the past six months has changed his mind on that front. And while they acknowledge he has taken considerable heat from outside conservative groups about how he handled the debt-ceiling increase, they insist the move was actually relatively well-received by his GOP members -- including the likes of hard-line tea party types such as Labrador and Rep. Justin Amash, Mich., both of whom advocated for a clean debt-limit increase.
And by keeping the GOP away from a high-profile showdown with the White House over the debt ceiling, Boehner allies argue, he has preserved the likelihood that the 2014 midterms will be fought on territory (President Obama and the health-care law) that should lead to Republican gains in both the House and Senate.
"While there is political carping going on in the halls of Congress and press releases going back home after [Tuesday's] vote, it would be a mistake for Boehner critics and speaker wannabes to believe he is headed for the exits or driven from the rostrum," said former New York congressman Tom Reynolds. "Boehner is still the speaker, and everyone knows it is an impossible job."
There's no question that elections have the ability to change narratives -- and career arcs -- overnight. (See Newt Gingrich 1994 vs. Newt Gingrich 1998.) And it's also true that if Boehner is credited as the guy who helped Republicans keep or even expand their majority in the House, the case to get rid of him may well lose some steam or stall out completely. (Winning in politics, like in sports, solves lots of problems.)
But it's important to remember just how close Boehner came to being pushed to a second ballot -- and a likely defeat -- in the vote for speaker at the start of the 113th Congress. He came within six votes of that fate when 10 Republicans voted for someone other than him as speaker and two abstained, the closest any speaker has come to being pushed to a second ballot since Gingrich in January 1997. That's a very small margin for error come 2015.
There is also the possibility that, despite what he says at the moment, Boehner ultimately won't even seek the speakership again. The political realities of his job are such that it would be impossible (and colossally stupid) for him to announce his future plans until the moment he was actually leaving. If tomorrow Boehner made clear to his colleagues that he planned to leave the speakership after the 2014 elections, he would immediately become a lame duck, with every ambitious House Republican plotting his or her campaign to replace him. He is saying he plans to be speaker in the 114th Congress because there is simply nothing else he can say and preserve his ability to lead the GOP conference between now and the election.
Given all of that, it's entirely plausible that Boehner wins reelection, Republicans hold the House and he announces some time in late November or early December that he is stepping down from the speakership and leaving the House. It's also entirely plausible that Boehner stays on as speaker (or at least runs for speaker in the 114th Congress). Or that he simply hasn't made up his mind yet and won't until after the November election.
The question undergirding all of this is how Boehner wants to end his congressional career. Does he want to go out on his own terms? Or stare down his enemies and risk the possibility of being forced out?