House Democrats could save House Speaker John Boehner: But they probably would prefer to watch the GOP’s government shutdown chaos.

House Democrats Could Save John Boehner. But They Probably Won’t.

House Democrats Could Save John Boehner. But They Probably Won’t.

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Sept. 24 2015 6:03 PM

House Democrats Could Save John Boehner

But they probably won’t.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader ,Republican House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
Let’s make a deal? Republican House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photos by Drew Angerer/Getty Images and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Shortly after Pope Francis’ address to Congress on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell began the process through which the Republican-controlled legislature will ultimately fund Planned Parenthood along with the rest of the federal government.

Jim Newell Jim Newell

Jim Newell is a Slate staff writer.

The chamber first voted on a short-term funding bill that stripped Planned Parenthood of federal funding, simply so McConnell could demonstrate that the votes weren’t there. The final count of 47 “yes” votes was nowhere even close to the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. So McConnell then moved quickly to set up a vote on a “clean” resolution funding the government as-is through mid-December.

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Once the Senate takes care of that, the fun begins in the House of Representatives. McConnell, as he did earlier this year in the Department of Homeland Security funding battle, is trying to jam the House. Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus have pledged not to vote for any package that funds Planned Parenthood. House Speaker John Boehner could do what he usually ends up doing—bring up the “clean” funding bill and pass it with the help of Democrats—but conservatives are dangling a coup threat over him.

What are Boehner’s options? He could call bluff on the coup attempt or try to fight it out. He could let the Freedom Caucus have its precious shutdown for a few days, allow the fever to break, and then bring up the clean resolution. He could hide under his desk and chug merlot until all of his problems melt away.

Or if he’s willing to suffer the wound to his pride, he could work to strike a deal with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats that would make him stronger than ever.

Any House member can vote for anyone—literally anyone; it doesn’t have to be a current member—in a speaker’s election. Typically the parties try not to fiddle with each other’s business, though: The majority elects its leader as speaker and the minority votes for its own top choice. If they wanted to, though, Democrats could swing their votes to a Republican in the event of a vacant chair. In other words, they could provide Boehner the backstop he needs against the threat of a coup.

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Some Democrats seemed receptive to this during the DHS showdown earlier this year. And why not? It would put an end to the brinksmanship that’s dominated Boehner’s tenure over the last four years and wrest Republican power from its locus in the Tea Party-centric Freedom Caucus. And though Boehner can’t be termed a moderate, Democrats would rather have him running the show than a more right-wing member who might want to give the whole Let the government default on its debt for fun! thing a shot. As of earlier this week, approximately a dozen House Democrats expressed willingness to throw their votes to Boehner in the event of a coup attempt.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a top Democrat, has thrown some cold water publicly on the idea. “My view is that the Republican caucus will have to make its own decisions,” he said late last week. As the Hill points out, Van Hollen’s circumstances are peculiar: He’s running against a more left-wing challenger for the Democratic Senate nomination in Maryland next year, so he doesn’t want to start hollering in public about how much he’d love to bail out Boehner. House Democrats may be considering the possibility more seriously in private.

He nevertheless makes a strong case: Why should this be Democrats’ problem? Isn’t Republican disarray, no matter how annoying it makes these recurring funding showdowns, in Democrats’ political interest?

At the end of all the annoying, recurring funding showdowns, Democrats get their way: McConnell folds, Boehner folds, and the Democrats get their clean funding resolutions and debt ceiling hikes. Democrats have the leverage and understand how to deploy it, even if it makes for some long nights.

It’s also unclear that 218 Republicans would be able to rally around a speaker more right-wing than Boehner in a spot speaker’s election. The candidate who’s most discussed as a Boehner replacement is current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who’s hardly a Tea Partier. Since there isn’t much agency involved in the internally unpopular choices any GOP speaker has to make, McCarthy would have to run the House much as Boehner has: by taking the least bad options available to him. That may be fine with House conservatives, too: They may just want to lop off someone’s head, and it would work well for them to have another “establishment” figure in charge to scapegoat for their natural lack of leverage.

Unless House Democrats can extract some extraordinary promises from Boehner for their votes—a push to increase the minimum wage, a significant lift in the sequester caps on discretionary spending—it’s more useful for Democrats to watch House Republican chaos run its course as outside observers.