WASHINGTON (Reuters) - John Boehner narrowly won a third term as House of Representatives speaker on Tuesday, surviving a stiff challenge from 25 conservative Republicans that may signal a growing split in the party as it takes full control of Congress.
Boehner received 216 of 408 votes, with a growing faction of dissident House Republicans opposing him because they said he had done too little to cut spending and fight President Barack Obama’s immigration and healthcare policies.
The last time more than 25 House members voted against a candidate for speaker from their own party was in 1859, according to congressional historians.
Within hours of the vote, a senior Republican aide said that Florida Representatives Richard Nugent and Daniel Webster, who had both opposed Boehner, were stripped of their assignments on the powerful House Rules Committee.
The number of Republican defectors was more than twice the dozen who withheld their support from him in an election two years ago, evidence of the stark party divisions that could make it hard to pass legislation, including bills to keep government agencies operating without interruption.
One of the defectors, Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, said he was deluged by calls from people urging Boehner’s ouster. Jones, like others, complained of Boehner’s handling of a massive government spending bill in December.
“We didn’t get 72 hours to read it, it was 1,600 pages and spent $1.1 trillion,” Jones said.
Obama, in a statement wishing Republicans well, said there would be “pitched battles” with Congress but that there were also “enormous areas of potential agreement.”
Last year’s Congress, which was badly gridlocked, has been dubbed one of the least productive in history.
Boehner’s detractors in Tuesday’s vote were conservative activists, some of them junior members, who regularly have voted against House Republican leadership-backed bills. But they also included seven-term Representative Steve King of Iowa, who has helped stymie Boehner’s efforts to advance major changes to U.S. immigration laws.
Idaho’s Raul Labrador, who declined to vote for Boehner in the speaker’s election two years ago, supported him on Tuesday, as did Tea Party member John Fleming of Louisiana.
“The votes were simply not there to defeat the speaker,” Labrador said in a statement. “I think it is unwise to marginalize yourself when there is no chance of victory, which was the case today,”
He added that Boehner had asked for his help in moving the House in a more conservative direction. A tearful Boehner told House members after the election: “As a speaker, all I ask and frankly expect is that we disagree without being disagreeable.” Boehner is often overcome by emotion at the start of a new Congress.
In coming weeks, Boehner is expected to face the difficult task of finding a middle ground on a bill to keep the Department of Homeland Security operating beyond February when funds run out.
House conservatives want to use that bill to withhold federal funds for the department’s employees to implement Obama’s order easing the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented residents.
Such a move would likely draw a veto from Obama, threatening operations of one of the most important federal agencies in the post-Sept. 11, 2011 era.
Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, who assumed the Senate majority leader job on Tuesday and has been hoping to avoid any government shutdown fights this year, could temper such House legislation and force Boehner’s Republicans to compromise.
McConnell has influence over the House because the Senate will need to approve any legislation for it to win final passage.
Even some of the most conservative House members also were expressing the need to ease their hard-line stances.
“It might be that I end up voting for some things that are not clear victories but they are somewhat victories. But that’s what the legislative process is about,” said Fleming, who helped orchestrate the 2013 federal government shutdown in a failed attempt to kill Obamacare.
Republicans still may not be able to achieve a full repeal of Obama’s signature healthcare law, but they are expected to chip away at it by passing measures to ease requirements for employer healthcare coverage and repeal an excise tax on medical devices. On the energy front, the first major bill the Republican-controlled Senate intends to pass is approval of the Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline.
In their first vote on Tuesday, the Republicans muscled through a controversial change to rules for estimating the cost of four major tax and budget bills in the House, to include revenue from anticipated growth effects. Democrats decried adoption of so-called “dynamic scoring” as masking the true costs for tax rate cuts that Republicans intend to pass this year.
Another big test of Republican leadership is likely to come by midyear, when Congress will have to raise the government’s borrowing authority or risk a credit default. The debt limit fight is always a hot-button issue for conservatives who oppose more borrowing.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Christian Plumb, John Whitesides and Ken Wills