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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

House Speaker John Boehner will face two Tea Party challengers Tuesday as he runs for renomination in his Cincinnati House District. He'll almost certainly win the Republican primary and also the general election in November. But that will only get him back to Congress. To get another term as speaker, he'll need to win a floor vote. That doesn't happen until January. And as NPR's S.V. Date reports, Boehner's prospects in that contest are far less clear.

S.V. DATE, BYLINE: Speaker John Boehner got his job by being the leader of the more conservative party. The most conservative members of that party, well, let's just say they've never been his fan club. They see him as a dealmaker who's too willing to compromise. And that was before Boehner said this to a hometown Rotary Club when asked if the House would pass an immigration bill this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: I don't know whether we're going to get to it this year or not. I think we should, but the appetite, the appetite amongst my colleagues for doing this is not real good. This guy's back here with a camera, but here's the attitude. Oh, don't make me do this. Oh, this is too hard. You should hear 'em.

DATE: A few days later, Boehner told his Republican caucus he was only kidding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BOEHNER: Well, it was no mocking. You all know me. You know, you tease the ones you love.

DATE: Some Boehner critics think they see a sign.

CONGRESSMAN MO BROOKS: Well, I don't think John Boehner's running for speaker.

DATE: That's Alabama Republican Mo Brooks. He senses a change in Boehner.

BROOKS: Just the way he has conducted himself. I just don't think he's going to run.

DATE: Brooks has a long list of grievances. He blames Boehner for there being no committee chairman from the eight states that Brooks called the heart of the South, even though they account for more than a fifth of all House Republicans. Boehner has allowed bills such as the Violence Against Women Act to pass with more Democratic votes than Republican. Brooks says Boehner threw the Republican caucus under the bus during the government shutdown last fall.

And on top of all of that comes that video of Boehner mocking colleagues over immigration. Brooks says it was a popular conversation topic at a gathering last week in the office of Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Like-minded conservatives have continued to meet regularly with Cruz since he led the shutdown effort.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: I would say right now, there are at least two dozen members of the House that have pretty firm views about the way in which the House of Representatives operates and will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that we better rise to the challenge that our country faces.

DATE: That two dozen is about the same number who had supposedly agreed to vote against Boehner for speaker in 2013 before several got cold feet and backed out at the last minute. Lynn Westmoreland is the Georgia Republican who helped Boehner survived that earlier challenge. He says two dozen votes could be enough to make things dicey for Boehner again if the majority margin remains at about 30 seats. But if Republicans do well in the midterm elections like they're pretty sure they will, that would make Boehner's life a lot easier.

CONGRESSMAN LYNN WESTMORELAND: Republicans take the Senate, you gain 12 or 15 seats in the House. Now you've got a different speaker's position than you have right now.

DATE: Just for the record, Boehner's office says he fully intends to be speaker in the next Congress. And congressional scholar Norm Ornstein, for one, thinks Boehner has a Machiavellian plan to get there.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Part of what Boehner's doing is operating maybe even with a little bit of a game of chicken, but believing that all of those people who are now saying he's not going to be able to make it back don't have a plan, and in the end, they aren't going to be able to do what they threatened to do.

DATE: That's what happened last time. Mo Brooks says he's confident next time will be different.

BROOKS: This time next year, we will have a different speaker.

DATE: The question then becomes who that new speaker would be. S.V. Date, NPR News, Washington.

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