As I write this, the House of Representatives has still not voted on Speaker John Boehner's plan to raise the debt ceiling. But no matter how the vote goes, the real question behind this week's action in the Republican caucus in the House may be whether Boehner will still be Speaker when the shouting's over and done. The simmering Tea Party factionalism may be about to explode into public view, in other words.
There are, of course, many possible outcomes to the whole debt ceiling struggle. Boehner could twist enough arms behind the scenes to pass his bill tonight. Or he may fail. Either way, the whole episode is going to leave a bad taste in the Tea Partiers' mouths, one assumes. Whether Boehner strong-arms enough of them to pass his bill or not, the very fact that he's had to postpone the vote several times now speaks to the contentious problem of keeping his caucus in line -- which he's never been all that good at doing.
The real answer to the question of whether Boehner survives or not as Speaker may hinge on the end game of the debt ceiling brouhaha, which may not be known until next week. If the Reid plan somehow gets put on President Obama's desk, Boehner's position may be incredibly weak within his own caucus. If, however, the Boehner plan winds up on the Oval Office desk, the Speaker may survive in his leadership position. If Obama is forced to pull out the Fourteenth Amendment, then it probably won't matter whether Boehner survives or not, because the House Republicans will spend the next few months impeaching the president, no matter who is sitting in the Speaker's chair at the time (this option, obviously, opens a whole 'nother can of worms which we're not going to get into today).
The power struggle between Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor has simmered on the back burner ever since the 2010 midterm election. Cantor, of course, is the favorite of the Tea Party freshmen. Boehner is more of an "old guard" Republican who is more in tune with the establishment of the Republican Party.
If Boehner loses the vote tonight (or, more realistically, doesn't even hold it at all, due to not having the votes to pass it within his own caucus), then it may be seen as what parliamentary systems call a vote of "no confidence." To put it more plainly: if Boehner can't lead the House Republicans on an issue of this magnitude, then why should he be their leader? How can he "lead" when they refuse to follow him?
I admit I'm not conversant with the rules within the Republican Party for a "leadership challenge," so chalk the next few sentences up as supposition. Normally, a party votes for their leadership right before a new session of Congress starts, in December of even-numbered years. For two years, the leadership stays intact, and then if a challenge happens, it happens on the biannual schedule. But in extreme circumstances, the caucus forces the vote ahead of schedule, and can vote out their leadership and vote new leaders in. This is quite rare, obviously.
But Boehner probably wouldn't take it that far. He's more of a "party first" type of guy, and if he saw he didn't have the support of a majority of his caucus, he would likely voluntarily step down as Speaker, and open up the voting to challengers. If Boehner follows this route, it will likely be announced during the August congressional recess, and the first thing Republicans will do when they return in September is vote Eric Cantor in as the next Speaker.
Lefties out there who would delight in seeing John Boehner deposed in such a fashion should be cautioned about the old "be careful what you wish for" adage, since the phrase "Speaker Cantor" should send chills down their spines. If Cantor wins this internecine battle, then precisely nothing is going to get done in the next year and a half in Congress. With the Tea Party in full control of one house of Congress, it's a pretty safe bet that they'll be resurgent in their extremism. They'll gleefully pass hundreds of bills, which will then go to the Senate to die.
There's a lot on the line in the entire debt ceiling debate. What happens tonight will influence the legislative battle, to be sure. But whatever happens tonight won't be the end of the process. If John Boehner can't corral enough votes tonight for his bill, though, it may be the beginning of the end of his term as Speaker of the House.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant