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
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
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.

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