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.