It wasn’t the Republican votes against House Speaker John Boehner that truly rattled the GOP leadership, it was the phone calls.
There were hundreds of them, jamming the phone lines of the district and Capitol offices of dozens of House GOP lawmakers.
The callers were not angry about legislation. Nor were they asking for help with a local matter. They were demanding their representative vote against Boehner Tuesday in his bid to win election to a third term as speaker.
For the GOP leadership, the flood of calls was a game changer. It thrusted the leadership into triage mode as it scrambled to heal the growing rift among House Republicans.
“We’ve never been lobbied quite like that,” House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday. “We yesterday began a new era of circumstances, and one is that we have members who are going to solicit the outside in ways that they have not previously.”
Boehner was so agitated by the phone calls that he raised the issue to his rank and file in a private meeting Wednesday morning, those in the room reported.
Boehner was defensive, according to witnesses. He told GOP lawmakers he has long espoused the Tea Party principles that the callers accused him of abandoning.
But he was also conciliatory to conservatives who are dissatisfied with him.
After the meeting, he told reporters he may reverse the punishment against two lawmakers who ran against him Tuesday.
“We're going to have a family conversation, which we had this morning, about bringing our team together,” Boehner said. “And I expect that those conversations over the next couple of days will continue and we'll come to a decision about how we go forward.”
Twenty-four Republicans voted against Boehner Tuesday, including many who specifically pointed to the phone calls as influencing their decision.
“After hearing from the fine people of N.C. with the desire to change the status quo, I cast my vote for a new direction in leadership,” Rep. Mark Meadows tweeted after voting for Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida for speaker.
Other Republicans who voted for Boehner put out statements qualifying their support for him. Their messages were aimed specifically at the constituents who jammed the phone lines in opposition.
“Many constituents from Idaho contacted me to let me know that I should not support him,” Rep. Raul Labrador said in a statement after voting for Boehner. “I want them to know that I did not make this decision lightly. I share the view of the majority of my constituents who are deeply frustrated by the way the House has run the last four years.”
Jammed phone lines on Capitol Hill are not uncommon, particularly if a high-profile or controversial bill is nearing a vote. Tea Party groups in December called Congress en masse to protest the $1.1 trillion government spending bill, for example.
But this time, the callers were opposed to the leaders, not legislation.
Anger from conservatives stems from years of clashes between the mainstream GOP and its sizable Tea Party faction, comprised of dozens of the most conservative lawmakers.
Their most recent gripe is the hastily-passed government spending bill, which they believe the GOP leadership rushed to the floor for a vote, despite opposition from conservatives.
Many conservatives also believe Republican House leaders are not moving aggressively enough to curb President Obama’s recent executive actions on the environment and immigration.
Earlier this week, Tea Party groups rallied their base to call the Capitol, listing the switchboard phone number on Twitter. Some popular conservative talk show hosts joined in, too.
“Want to fire John Boehner as speaker?” Tea Party Patriots tweeted. “Call your Republican representative now and tell them to vote against Boehner for speaker.”
In the end, the effort was disorganized and fell far short of succeeding, but 24 lawmakers voted against him, the biggest opposition since the Civil War.
“They learned a lesson,” Sessions said. “And we did, too.”