Thursday, January 05, 2023

A Tale of Two Coalitions

David Super

     Six roll-call votes have produced absolutely no movement toward electing Rep. Kevin McCarthy speaker if the House.  With twenty Republican Members voting against him and only a four-Member margin of error, Rep. McCarthy seems highly unlikely to take the gavel. 

     Media reports suggest that some of his opponents have shifted to trying to negotiate a deal.  That probably does not matter, however, because many of the rebels seem disinterested in following leaders or making bargains.  One of Rep. McCarthy’s supporters was quoted as saying that five to seven rebels will not vote for him under any circumstances, and that would be decisive as long as current rules apply. 

     Rep. McCarthy has floated the idea of shifting the rules to allow a plurality to elect a speaker – which would allow him to win with 213 votes rather than 218 but also risk electing Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries if at least eleven rebels continue to hold out.  (That might not be a bad result for the rebels, who can then combine with McCarthyite Republicans to pass rules that would allow Republicans to force a vote on replacing Rep. Jeffries as soon as they have a consensus candidate.)  In any event, Rep. McCarthy would need help from either the Democrats or the rebels to make that rule change. 

     Some media accounts suggest establishment Republicans might strip rebels of committee assignments as punishment.  That would only work if they can get 218 Republicans to support such a measure, which seems unlikely as it would require sixteen rebels to vote to punish themselves.  After complaining bitterly about Democrats’ rejection of some of Rep. McCarthy’s selections for the January 6 Committee, Republicans clearly do not dare invite Democrats to meddle in Republican committee assignments. 

     Surely backroom discussions will soon switch to alternative candidates, if they have not done so already.  Some media accounts suggest that Rep. Steve Scalise, the second-ranking House Republican in the previous Congress, would be the logical choice.  He was originally added to the leadership as a representative of the more extreme right-wing factions in the caucus.  This strikes me as unlikely, however, because he is still too much a part of the establishment to be acceptable to many rebels.  As a part of the leadership, he was effectively compelled to work and vote for compromises the leadership negotiated, some of which the rebels dislike.  Rep. Elise Stefanik, although ferociously Trumpist of late, may also be tainted for the rebels because of her presence in leadership or her one-time flirtation with relative centrism.

     Rep. McCarthy’s supporters – whom much of the media absurdly keeps calling “moderates” – are clearly quite angry with the rebels and so will not consent to give them a speaker of their choosing.  It takes only a handful of embittered McCarthy supporters to reject a nominee with rebel support.  None of the rebels have any chance, and even House Freedom Caucus members who supported Rep. McCarthy (such as Rep. Jim Jordan) will probably be unacceptable to those not wanting to reward rebellion. 

     The eventual winner therefore seems likely to be someone who has neither leadership nor House Freedom Caucus affiliations.  It would need to be someone whose conservative credentials appeal to the rebels but whose public persona does not seem incendiary to Members from marginal districts.  It would need to be someone who voted to support challenges to President Biden’s electors but who was not a leading insurrectionist. 

     Quite a few Members fit that profile, although few have been included in media speculation.  For example, Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana just stepped down as chair of the Republican Study Committee, the primary home of right-wing Republican representatives before the House Freedom Caucus formed.  He voted against the Biden electors, has publicly attacked Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar (a favorite right-wing target), and was one of Rep. McCarthy’s rejected designees to the January 6 Committee.  But he has loyally supported Rep. McCarthy’s speakership quest and has not been seeding media stories about himself. 

     Whomever becomes speaker, however, will be little more than a figurehead.  He or she will lack the stature to persuade or the power to punish.  He or she therefore will be unable to represent the House majority meaningfully in negotiations with the Senate or the Administration.  Neither President Biden nor Senator Schumer would have any reason to make any concessions in negotiations with such a speaker because events of this week demonstrate that no Republican leader can speak authoritatively for his or her caucus:  any concessions will be greeted only with further extravagant demands.  For all intents and purposes, we already know that the speaker’s chair will be effectively vacant for the next two years. 

     That raises the question of how Congress will address must-pass fiscal legislation.   The rebels’ demand that Congress cease passing omnibus spending legislation (instead moving twelve separate appropriations bills each year) would considerably lengthen the list of indispensable bills. 

     The answer likely is that two coalitions will share control of the House for the next two years, just as disparate coalitions on the Supreme Court may resolve different aspects of a pending case.  One House coalition – composed of the two Republican factions once they reach an agreement – will elect a speaker and organize the House.  A very different coalition, composed of all Democrats and a handful of Republicans unafraid of primary challenges, will do the actual legislating on truly indispensable legislation.  Such Republicans could do very well for themselves in the short-term by striking a deal with Democrats on organizing the House – one would become speaker and others could gain choice committee chairs – but that level of high-profile collaboration would surely draw very well-funded primary opponents.  They thus will stay with their party for House organization purposes and break ranks only when absolutely necessary to stave off a national calamity such as a prolonged government shutdown. 

     These hypothetical five pragmatic Republicans could theoretically defy their party only six times this Congress:  signing a discharge petition this September to bring a special rule for consideration of Senate-passed omnibus appropriations bill to the floor, voting to adopt that rule, voting for final passage of the omnibus, and then repeating that cycle next year.  This would avert government shutdowns (or end ones their colleagues have already triggered). 

     This does not account for the debt limit, which the Administration says must be raised this Spring to avert a default.  With no plausible prospects of reaching even a bad deal on the debt limit with House Republicans, President Biden would be wise to end the debt limit saga once and for all:  either declare it unconstitutional and order Treasury Secretary Yellen to ignore it or embrace one of the hyper-technical loopholes that have been suggested for raising the funds to pay the government’s bills without formally assuming further debt.  House Republicans are hard at work proving that he has no realistic choice. 

     If the House Republicans’ manifest instability results in our finally being rid of the dangerous, nonsensical, and obsolete debt limit, then Rep. McCarthy’s political ambitions will not have died in vain. 


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