Speaker’s Choice

If Paul Ryan’s “no” holds firm, House Republicans must decide between chaos and a coalition with the Democrats.

Paul Ryan: To be or not to be...
AP Photo/Molly Riley
Oct. 19, 2015, 8 p.m.

He doesn’t want the job—Paul Ry­an has made that abund­antly clear—but Re­pub­lic­ans still hope that the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee chair­man will change his mind and seek the House speak­er­ship. He is, after all, the only pos­sible can­did­ate who could plaus­ibly bridge the ideo­lo­gic­al, styl­ist­ic, and stra­tegic chasm between the main­stream, es­tab­lish­ment-friendly Re­pub­lic­ans and the 35 to 40 law­makers, mostly mem­bers of the Free­dom Caucus, that The Wall Street Journ­al has dubbed “the Re­fuseniks.”

Even if Ry­an as­sents, however, the path to the speak­er­ship might re­quire con­ces­sions to the Re­fuseniks that he would be un­will­ing to make. One Free­dom Caucus de­mand is to co­di­fy the so-called Hastert Rule, re­quir­ing that a ma­jor­ity of the cham­ber’s Re­pub­lic­ans sup­port a meas­ure be­fore the full House can con­sider it. This would change the House to one in which a plur­al­ity, not a ma­jor­ity, rules. Noth­ing could pass the House without ap­prov­al from 124 Re­pub­lic­ans, the barest ma­jor­ity of the cham­ber’s 247 Re­pub­lic­ans, ef­fect­ively mov­ing the ideo­lo­gic­al cen­ter of grav­ity to the right. This would fur­ther mar­gin­al­ize the House, already the most ideo­lo­gic­al part of the elec­ted gov­ern­ment.

Here’s the di­lemma for House Re­pub­lic­ans. The Re­fuseniks have made it clear that they won’t ac­cept an es­tab­lish­ment choice, with the pos­sible—though not cer­tain—ex­cep­tion of Ry­an. Un­stated, but equally true, is that a much lar­ger num­ber of main­stream Re­pub­lic­ans won’t ac­cept any­one from the Free­dom Caucus or sym­path­et­ic to it. Not want­ing the tail to wag the dog, they’re un­will­ing to give in to what they see as a few dozen mem­bers tak­ing the speak­er­ship host­age. The GOP’s ma­jor­ity is pretty firmly en­trenched, but a sure­fire way to be­come a minor­ity again is for the House to ad­opt the Free­dom Caucus’s agenda. Keep in mind that the elect­or­ate next year, when the pres­id­ency is on the bal­lot, is very dif­fer­ent from the older, whiter, more-con­ser­vat­ive, and more-Re­pub­lic­an voters who gave the GOP an im­press­ive ma­jor­ity in 2014.

If Ry­an’s no re­mains no, we can as­sume that John Boehner will stay on as speak­er for a while—but not forever. This would leave Re­pub­lic­ans with a choice: chaos or a co­ali­tion. The pro­spect of chaos looks par­tic­u­larly scary right now, giv­en the im­me­di­ate need to raise the lim­it on the fed­er­al debt be­fore the gov­ern­ment ex­ceeds it. Cur­rent pro­jec­tions put the date of a de­fault at Nov. 3 or so. But the House ac­tu­ally needs to raise the debt lim­it this week, in case hard-line con­ser­vat­ive Ted Cruz, the Texas Re­pub­lic­an who is run­ning for pres­id­ent, raises pro­ced­ur­al hurdles in the Sen­ate. Soon after that is re­solved, the con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion that’s fin­an­cing the gov­ern­ment is due to run out on Dec. 11.

So, what’s the al­tern­at­ive? Should Ry­an re­fuse the speak­er­ship, con­sider an un­pre­ced­en­ted, here­to­fore in­con­ceiv­able, pos­sib­il­ity: a co­ali­tion with the cham­ber’s Demo­crats. Not a co­ali­tion gov­ern­ment in a par­lia­ment­ary sense, shar­ing lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions and the chair­man­ships of com­mit­tees and sub­com­mit­tees. In­stead, a Re­pub­lic­an would gain the speak­er­ship with a bloc of GOP votes plus sup­port from enough Demo­crats—anxious for a speak­er they could ac­tu­ally work with—to add up to 218 mem­bers, a House ma­jor­ity.

The nuc­le­us of such a co­ali­tion is the 91 House Re­pub­lic­ans who voted last month in fa­vor of a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion (151 voted against it) to keep the gov­ern­ment run­ning. Be­sides those, the co­ali­tion would draw as many votes as pos­sible from the oth­er 110 or so GOP law­makers who don’t be­long to the Free­dom Caucus. Then, the Demo­crats. A crit­ic­al mass of Demo­crat­ic law­makers might ac­cept any of a hand­ful of seni­or House Re­pub­lic­ans.

An ob­vi­ous ques­tion is why Demo­crats would help elect a Re­pub­lic­an speak­er without get­ting any tan­gible be­ne­fits. The reas­on: Most House Demo­crats ran for Con­gress in hopes of ac­com­plish­ing things rather than just throw­ing rocks at the cham­ber’s ma­jor­ity. Get­ting some things done, they fig­ure, is prefer­able to get­ting noth­ing done. By elect­ing a speak­er they could work with, they’d as­sure them­selves a voice. An­oth­er be­ne­fit to Demo­crats: Should such a co­ali­tion suc­ceed, the Free­dom Caucus could be­come totally mar­gin­al­ized. It’s hard to ima­gine how its mem­bers could re­tain any com­mit­tee or sub­com­mit­tee chair­man­ships.

This next week or two are likely to be in­ter­est­ing, in­deed—the poker about as high-stakes as Cap­it­ol Hill ever en­coun­ters. Dead­lines are pil­ing up, adding to the drama. Keep an eye on the forth­com­ing vote on wheth­er to reau­thor­ize the Ex­port-Im­port Bank, only the third time in dec­ades that a meas­ure has reached the House floor through a dis­charge pe­ti­tion, signed by a ma­jor­ity of House mem­bers. More than 40 Re­pub­lic­ans joined Demo­crats to cir­cum­vent con­ser­vat­ives on the House Bank­ing Com­mit­tee who had bottled up the meas­ure, to force a vote that is sched­uled for Oct. 26. Three days later, fed­er­al fin­an­cing for high­ways is set to ex­pire, un­less Con­gress acts to re­new it. Whatever hap­pens, don’t ex­pect to be bored.

What We're Following See More »
Mueller Reports
1 days ago

"The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has delivered a report on his inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election to Attorney General William P. Barr ... Barr told congressional leaders in a letter late Friday that he may brief them within days on the special counsel’s findings. 'I may be in a position to advise you of the special counsel’s principal conclusions as soon as this weekend,' he wrote in a letter to the leadership of the House and Senate Judiciary committees. It is up to Mr. Barr how much of the report to share with Congress and, by extension, the American public. The House voted unanimously in March on a nonbinding resolution to make public the report’s findings, an indication of the deep support within both parties to air whatever evidence prosecutors uncovered."

Cohen Back on the Hill for More Testimony
2 weeks ago
Pascrell Ready to Demand Trump Taxes
2 weeks ago

"House Democrats plan to formally demand President Donald Trump’s tax returns in about two weeks, a key lawmaker said Tuesday. They intend to seek a decade’s worth of his personal tax returns, though not his business filings, said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee."

Cohen's Attorneys Discussed Pardon with Trump Lawyers
2 weeks ago

"An attorney for Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, raised the possibility of a pardon with attorneys for the president and his company after federal agents raided Mr. Cohen’s properties in April, according to people familiar with the discussions. Conversations among those parties are now being probed by congressional investigators."

Judge Rules GSA Must Turn Over Documents on FBI Relocation
2 weeks ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.