The Nightmare Scenario That John Boehner Fears The Most

To officially retire, he'll need his House GOP colleagues to produce something they're not known for -- a quick and orderly decision.

As Scott Wong of The Hill reported Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner experienced a fitful night's sleep last week, during which time the Ohio Republican had a nightmare about a "hand" that "came reaching, pulling," and, ultimately preventing his dream-self from making a needed escape. "I was trying to get out and I couldn't get out," Boehner related.

A bad dream, eh? Ah, well, probably just one of those examples of sleep knitting up our raveled sleeve of care by subconsciously processing roughly remembered anxieties in order to purge them. Nothing to worry about. Unless, of course, it was a harrowing and prophetic vision of an inescapable future!

 And, as Wong reports, maybe it is: "Boehner’s nightmare could become reality if House Republicans fail to rally around their nominee for Speaker in a floor vote set for Oct. 29."

My, oh my. It seems like it was only a few weeks ago that Boehner, still feeling buoyant from Pope Francis' visit to Congress, made the decision that his moment had come: Time to retire and pass the responsibility for supervising the House Republicans' frequently fractious caucus into another member's hands.

That meant that whatever the future held for the GOP in the House, it was going to happen without him. Or, maybe a better way of putting it -- given some of his colleagues' propensity for imagining the speakership as a position with vastly more power than it actually has -- is that from Boehner's perspective, whatever the future held, it was going to be somebody else's problem.

Indeed, anything for John Boehner -- anything! -- would be better than the agony of remaining speaker of the House -- a creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough. But if the members of his own caucus can't manage to gather on the floor of the House for one day with their act together and their dignity intact, Boehner may be in trouble. (I only bring this up because John Boehner's fondest wish for many years was for just one day in which his colleagues might gather on the floor of the House with their act together and their dignity intact.)

Here's what's going on. On Thursday, Oct. 29, the House GOP caucus will meet informally in a closed-door session and vote as a group on a new speaker. Boehner's more or less hand-picked successor, current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is expected to win this vote. However, once these ceremonies conclude, the action shifts to a formal vote on the House floor, and at that point, a specific hurdle has to be cleared to make McCarthy's promotion official -- he's got to win 218 votes.

Now, whether this outcome is likely depends on whose version of the speculative future you're reading. Over at Politico, Wednesday morning, you'll find that McCarthy is "in command." That is to say, he's "still a bit shy of the 218 he needs on the House floor," but his "team is exceedingly optimistic he’ll gather the requisite support" by the time the votes are counted on the House floor. So, McCarthy is "relaxed" and feeling "very good" about everything. Per Politico:

In a brief interview with POLITICO on Tuesday, McCarthy said he felt “very good” about his prospects heading into Thursday's vote. Asked as he exited the weekly Republican leadership meeting whether he’ll win the race on the first ballot — a near certainty — McCarthy asked a reporter, “What do you think?" and flashed a grin.

In an alternate accounting, however, McCarthy is reeling from telling Fox News that the Benghazi Committee was a success because it damaged former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's poll numbers, earning a rebuke from that committee's chairman, Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), and leaving enough blood in the water to keep Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) in the contest for speaker.

And, as the Atlantic's Russell Berman reports, while Chaffetz does not have enough support to compete with McCarthy at the House GOP's informal vote, Chaffetz believes that the 30 or so members of the House's mysterious "House Freedom Committee" (a sort of semi-secret society in the House that apparently reckoned that naming themselves "The No Boehners Club" was a touch too juvenile) will collectively vote against McCarthy, prevent him from hitting the magic number, and transform an orderly handover of power into a prolonged debacle:

That scenario is precisely what frightens rank-and-file Republicans.

The House could become institutionally paralyzed until it found a candidate that a majority of its voting members supported as speaker. And if the Republican leader fell short on the first ballot, there’s no guarantee the party would quickly settle on someone else. “We’ve got to figure out how to get to 218 before we get to the floor. Because otherwise we could be literally doing this through the fall,” said Representative Tom Rooney, a McCarthy ally from Florida.

Yes, yes, but what becomes of the hero of this Sartrean melodrama? As Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) explained to Wong, “If you don’t put up 218, Boehner stays Speaker... his resignation doesn’t take effect until there’s a new Speaker."

More bad news for Boehner and McCarthy arrived Wednesday evening, with The Hill reporting that the aforementioned Freedom Caucus is endorsing Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) for the speaker position, "potentially depriving any candidate from securing enough votes on the floor this month." Reporter Cristina Marcos reports that the Freedom Caucus' membership is "planning to vote as a bloc" and "that will complicate McCarthy's math." 


How bad could that be, for Boehner? In 1923, it took nine rounds of voting to finally give Frederick Gillet the gavel, but these votes all took place over the course of three days, which would leave Boehner plenty of time to get home for Thanksgiving. As Berman notes, however, back "in the 19th century it took as long as two months for the House to agree on a leader." In a similar situation, that would mean Boehner is stuck as the House speaker through the next debt ceiling vote.

But again, let's underscore that this would just be a crazy and unlikely nightmare scenario, okay? The only thing that needs to happen for Boehner to start his retirement is for the House Republican caucus to arrive at a consensus position in a peaceable and timely manner. Which is ironic, because if Boehner's colleagues had done this specific thing with something approaching "regularity," the Ohio representative might not be trying to get the hell out of town right now.

Also on HuffPost: