(Hail Mary, noun, 2. (FOOTBALL) a very long, typically unsuccessful pass made in a desperate attempt to score late in the game.) It appears Speaker Boehner may have another rebellion on his hands. Will this be the toughest challenge to his speakership? Maybe. That is if you don’t include the last two speakership elections, multiple Hastert violations, DHS funding, or any of the other events that sparked overthrow rumors the last four years.
Speaker Boehner’s demise has received at least as much press as many former speakers who eventually resigned their positions. But this is different from those historical examples. The difference between speakers Reed, Henderson, Gingrich, et al., is this rebellion will almost certainly not succeed in the 114th Congress. Conservatives do not have the votes to vacate the chair. They’d need Democratic votes on multiple series to accomplish that. And short of nominating a member even more moderate than Boehner, the minority has little to gain from helping the right overthrow their leader.
However, this rebellion is notable in that it is part of a string of more aggressive tactics emerging from the conservative wing of the party. Just before recess Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) tried to circumvent Majority Leader McConnell to force votes on amendments to kill the Iran deal and Obamacare. Their procedural gambits ended when neither could produce enough supporters for a roll call vote (a very low threshold of only 11 in the Senate). Around the same time Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) offered a resolution to declare the speakership vacant, attempting to force a family discussion about the direction of the party. Changing Senate process or unseating a sitting Speaker can only be described as Hail Marys, plays with such low odds they are only called in moments of desperation.
The irony is that conservatives are winning on several issues. Leadership has gone out of their way to accommodate conservatives on a variety of votes. CQ recently released a study (gated) showing that the most frequent party defectors do not come from the House Freedom Caucus or the Tea Party. Moderate Republicans are the ones most likely to vote against the party’s position. To put it differently, when scheduling floor votes House leaders appease the right’s requests more often.
This makes these high profile attempts puzzling. They are Hail Mary throws to the end zone. And just like in football, 99% of these plays will end in failure. The question is: at what cost?
Unlike football, there is a lot of time left on the political clock. The game will go on. For conservatives, this likely won’t end well. In the process of flexing their muscles they may turn the ball over to Democrats, giving them leverage on many issues from highway funding to budgetary issues. Boehner will have to move forward on a continuing resolution (CR) that does not include an amendment for Planned Parenthood. Once that is passed, a highway bill, omnibus spending package, and other issues remain.
Hail Marys are entertaining plays but they fail more often than not. And unless conservatives temper their play calling, they risk losing a lot of policy games.