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  • Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin

Gaming Out the Votes for House Speaker

The fact that we even started writing this post is an expression of confidence that this impasse will not soon be resolved. It cannot go on indefinitely because the whole charade is basically a government shutdown in another form. A minority of about 20 Republican House Members-elect are blocking the Congress from electing a Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as Speaker, and thereby postponing the start of the 118th Congress. Of course, a tango takes two, so there is equal pressure on the 200 or so McCarthy supporters to put forward an alternative that can unite the GOP Caucus (assuming there is such a GOP member-elect).

The history of government shutdowns tells us this cannot last much more than a few days. Within a week or two the support for Republicans in public opinion polls crashed when Newt Gingrich (R-GA) shut down the government in 1995-1996, and again when the GOP Young Guns and the Tea Party shutdown the government in 2013, and again when President Donald Trump shutdown the government in 2018-2019. Polling cycles are speeding up so we can expect the bad news to arrive more rapidly.

On the other hand, this does not look likely to resolve within a matter of hours. The 20 “Rebels” have shown no signs of cracking, and McCarthy needs 20 to shrink below 5, but the 202 (well 201, will it be fewer on the next vote?) make a strong case that the larger number does not have to further accommodate the small minority. Two days into this, everyone seems fully convinced Kevin McCarthy will not win this fight, everyone that is except McCarthy himself and his most loyal backers, but McCarthy has wanted to become Speaker for his entire professional life, and he will want to try a few more scenarios before accepting defeat. We have learned that each vote takes about three hours, so keep popping that corn and ordering that pizza.

It is an open question whether McCarthy will try to reach out to Democrats for help. If the far right is blocking his path to the nomination, perhaps he could salvage his bid by looking for a few Democratic defectors. This has little chance of success. McCarthy may or may not know this but, he is both toxic and untrusted among almost all Democrats in the House (and among their constituents). No serious conversation can start with Democrats until McCarthy is no longer the standard bearer, and those conversations will be with Democratic Leader Hakim Jeffries (D-NY) not individual members. Jeffries, with Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) often by his side is the emerging House powerhouse from this circus with the full confidence of the united Democratic Caucus she built and handed to him. Republican expressions of envy for Pelosi’s leadership skills have become common these days.

All this means, sooner or later, McCarthy will allow one of his supporters to rise for the purpose of nominating someone other than McCarthy as Speaker. Most expect McCarthy’s top deputy, Majority Leader in the 117th Congress, Steve Scalise (R-LA) to be the first non-McCarthy alternative floated. It is an open question whether he could secure the necessary 218 votes on the first or subsequent ballots. He is more trusted and liked in the GOP Caucus than McCarthy, but there are more than 5 members of the “Rebel” group that have expressed opposition to him as the replacement nominee. The same can be said for Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Jim Jordan (R-OH). It is possible one of these alternatives, or some other Republican, could pass the threshold of GOP votes needed simply by not being Kevin McCarthy. The Rebels would then have their scalp, and the rules package they negotiated, weakening whoever would then be elected Speaker with the threat that any faction disappointed by his or her decisions could force a no-confidence vote. This would leave Congress with a temporary solution to the current impasse that would last until the first issue of consequence reaches the chamber, and the leader faced an irreconcilable difference between the establishment and insurgent wings of the Party. It is possible an extremely skilled leader could be elected to unite the Republican factions for longer than this.

But increasingly there are signs that the GOP-only process will face competition from efforts to forge a bipartisan solution to the leadership question. This too would be a road fraught with difficult challenges. This idea currently faces opposition from most Republicans and even many Democrats, so it would be for many a last resort (although perhaps a necessary one if the Republican-only process completely breaks down). Republicans will be hoping they can pick-off the necessary number of Democrats without making many concessions, but most Democrats are unified and unlikely to let individual members negotiate their own deals.

The rules package negotiated with the Rebels would have to be renegotiated from scratch. While the Rebels wanted the ability to block disliked legislation from getting to the floor, Democrats would likely insist on openness and perhaps the renewal of the “Break the Gridlock Rules” from the 117th congress that allows bills with bipartisan majority support to get a vote. There would be negotiations over other rules, the number of Democrats in leadership, on committees, as committee chairs, and each concession to the Democrats will cost Republican votes for the nominee. Don’t bet on a quick resolution, or any resolution, to the coalition government approach, but if it was possible, it would allow the House to participate in the Bipartisan renaissance President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were just celebrating in Kentucky.

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