Nancy Pelosi should help elect Kevin McCarthy speaker.

Democrats and Republicans Need to Make a Deal to Put Kevin McCarthy in the Speaker’s Chair

Democrats and Republicans Need to Make a Deal to Put Kevin McCarthy in the Speaker’s Chair

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 7 2015 1:57 PM

Nancy Pelosi Should Decide the Next Speaker

Democrats and Republicans need to make a deal to put Kevin McCarthy in charge.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy
Rep. Kevin McCarthy on June 10, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

House Republicans are in a bit of a bind. A majority of the caucus will very likely vote on Thursday to nominate Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California as the next speaker. But being elected speaker of the House requires an absolute majority of the chamber, not just of the majority party. Usually, once the majority caucus has chosen a candidate, the members of that party line up (nearly) unanimously behind that candidate. But Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah (so far as I know, no relation) is challenging McCarthy, counting on support from the roughly 40-member “Freedom Caucus” (though it might prefer the “Tortilla Coast Caucus” these days). Chaffetz has insisted that many members of that group would be unwilling to vote for McCarthy on the floor. In fact, he told the New York Times that McCarthy “can’t get to 218” votes.

But if the Tortillans deny McCarthy the speakership, is it really plausible that the rest of the Republican caucus would fall in line behind Chaffetz? Doing so would, essentially, ensure that the most extreme wing of the majority party controlled the leadership, and that doesn’t seem like it would be too appealing to the rest of the caucus. And if no one gets to 218? Well, that could throw the chamber into chaos. The business of the House would not necessarily grind to a complete halt—House rules provide for a speaker pro tempore when the speakership is vacant—but it’s hard to imagine the House doing much of substance in the midst of a leadership crisis.

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It wouldn’t be the first time something like this happened: In 1856, in the tumult leading up to the Civil War, it took two months and 133 ballots to elect Nathaniel Banks as speaker. In 1923, it took nine ballots over two days for anyone to get a majority, and for a familiar-sounding reason: The Republican Party was split—back then, between progressives and more conservative “regulars.” The progressive members refused to support the Republican conference nominee for speaker, Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts, on the floor. In exchange for finally agreeing to support Gillett, the progressives extracted a promise that legislation that the regulars had kept bottled up in committee would be brought to the House floor for a vote.

The fight over Gillett was an intra-party fight, but maybe Democrats should take a page from the progressive Republicans’ playbook. Or, to put it differently, maybe Democrats should come to McCarthy’s rescue. That might sound a bit crazy, but bear with me. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi should offer McCarthy a deal: Democrats would provide the votes necessary to make him speaker and keep him in the chair for the remainder of the 114th Congress. In exchange, McCarthy would commit to bringing certain specified bills to the floor for a vote—the list might include a clean debt-ceiling increase through 2017 (or even an abolition of the debt ceiling entirely), a continuing resolution funding the government at last year’s levels for the remainder of the fiscal year, something like the immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013, and more. The details would have to be carefully negotiated (and other members of the leadership, perhaps starting with Rules Committee Chair Pete Sessions, would have to be brought on board), but there are no insurmountable practical considerations preventing such a deal.

In essence, this deal would make House Democrats the junior partners in a coalition government of the chamber. It certainly wouldn’t be as nice as controlling the House, but it would be an improvement over their current position. Getting their high-priority bills to the floor would be a win-win: if the bills pass, they score a policy win, and if they fail, they’ve got Republicans on record, once again, voting against popular measures. Moreover, Democrats could publicly present their willingness to support a Republican speaker as an act of patriotic statesmanship, a willingness to put governing the country ahead of partisan advantage, and a reason to trust them with a majority in the 2016 elections.

What’s trickier to say is what the GOP might get out of it, but it could actually be a win for them as well. McCarthy would, in a key sense, be weakened as a speaker—after all, he would be starting his speakership reliant on a party that seeks to oust him from office. But presumably he would prefer a weakened speakership to no speakership at all. And in another sense, McCarthy might actually be stronger as the head of a quasi-coalition: Instead of being a prisoner to the most extreme members of his caucus, he would be free to kick them to the curb on certain issues and proceed with some Democratic votes.

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The deal would also be a win for the majority of the Republican caucus, which doesn’t want a shutdown or a default. More broadly, it doesn’t want to continue to be held hostage by its most conservative wing, the “false prophets” lambasted by outgoing Speaker John Boehner. Making this deal would allow most Republicans to demonstrate that they are, in fact, capable of governing responsibly, which, in turn, would tie in to their arguments that they should be trusted with a continuing majority in the next Congress. With a speaker vacancy—or, perhaps worse, the Tortillans in charge—routine and necessary legislation would likely fall by the wayside in favor of partisan warfare, further suggesting to the electorate that the party currently in charge of governing can’t successfully do so. While it’s true that there are political risks for more moderate Republicans to taking this approach—such as facing a Tea Party primary challenge—a number of them are from less rabidly conservative districts. And, at the end of the day, very few congressional incumbents have been successfully primaried out of office by a right-wing opponent since 2010, perhaps suggesting that centrist Republicans have less to fear than some think.

The fact that Democrats, McCarthy, and the majority of the Republican caucus all stand to gain something from this arrangement should suggest that, crazy-sounding or not, it might just be politically feasible.

Obviously, the people who would lose out in this scenario are Chaffetz and the Tortillans. For McCarthy and his allies, that might just be the best reason of all to make the deal.

Josh Chafetz is professor at Cornell Law School. He is at work on his second book, Congress’s Constitution, which will be published by Yale University Press.