WASHINGTON – John Boehner won re-election as speaker of the House on Tuesday with the help of an unlikely ally: Mario Cuomo, the former Democratic governor of New York.
Astute readers may have noticed that Cuomo is currently deceased. He died on New Year’s Day and was buried Tuesday – and thus, quite inadvertently, did he help to stack the deck for the Ohio Republican to keep the speaker’s gavel in the 114th Congress.
Twenty-five conservatives – more than 10 percent of the Republican caucus – rebelled against their leader on the first day of the new Congress. It was the largest revolt against a House speaker in more than a century, and the rebels were within striking distance of the 29 votes they would have needed to deny Boehner the speakership – if all sitting members of the House voted.
But more than two dozen were missing when Congress convened at noon, a few because of snow-related travel delays but most of them Democratic members of the New York delegation who were attending Cuomo’s funeral. Because the speaker is elected based on the majority of those voting, this reduced the number of votes Boehner needed from about 218 to 205, and the conservative rebellion fizzled before it ever had a chance.
It was conservatives’ last, best chance to disrupt Boehner and his leadership team. Right-wing interest groups had pushed for the rebellion against the speaker Monday, claiming it was the most important issue to tea party activists since Obamacare. Conservatives saw it as a crucial time to make their stand because, now that Boehner has the gavel and the largest Republican majority in decades, he can afford to ignore the roughly two dozen die-hard conservatives in his caucus – if necessary, recruiting Democrats to offset the “no” votes on legislation.
The 25-man rebellion was a serious rebuke of Boehner, but it was ultimately meaningless and purely symbolic, as these things often are. Conservatives made a point but, given the absentees, Boehner was destined to win from the start, and the party establishment openly derided the rebels.
When firebrand Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich, rose during the roll call to cast his vote for Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a fellow hard-liner, a wave of laughter washed across the Republican side.
There were more titters when Rep. David Brat, R-Va., the upstart who defeated Eric Cantor in last year’s primary, cast his speaker vote for Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., a backbencher of little distinction. And guffaws could be heard in the gallery when Rep. Curt Clawson, R-Fla., cast his vote for Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“Senator Rand Paul,” the clerk repeated, as if disbelieving his ears.
Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, a senior Republican, asked aloud on the House floor: “Why a senator?”
Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader, shrugged in reply. McCarthy laughed aloud when Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, called out a speaker vote for himself – one of three Gohmert received.
Not too long after that, the clerk called on Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., who had offered himself as a challenger to Boehner.
“Yoho?” called out the clerk.
“Yoho!” voted Yoho.
“Yoho,” repeated the clerk.
It’s off to work we go.
Boehner was out of the chamber during the roll call, but the free-for-all would have been familiar to him after trying to lead his fractious caucus for four years. There were children everywhere – crawling around, playing with phones – and all manner of strange antics. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., did a twirl to show off her dress and flashed a thumbs up at the gallery. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., cast his speaker vote for Colin Powell.
But while Boehner faced a modest rebellion at the start of the last Congress, this one was unusually vocal and included three nominating speeches for prospective Republican rivals. “This is not about Judge Gohmert,” Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., said in nominating Gohmert. Bridenstine then read a Mark Twain quote about how “the patriot is a scarce man.” (A better Twain quote: “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”)
Boehner got 11 votes more than he needed. In accepting the gavel, he made no mention of the rebellion, instead adopting an agricultural metaphor. “Every day you and I come out here, try to plant good seeds, cultivate the ground and take care of the pests,” he said.
The pests swarmed on the first day of the 114th Congress. But their buzz was worse than their bite.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.