- The ousting of Kevin McCarthy has thrown the House back into chaos, and there’s no clear successor.
- Some have speculated that a “compromise speaker” or “coalition government” could emerge.
- There’s simply no way that’s happening. Here’s why.
The fall of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy at the hands of Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida has revived talk of something relatively uncommon in American politics — a “compromise speaker” or “bipartisan coalition” emerging to govern the increasingly ungovernable House of Representatives.
Let’s just say it up front: it’s not going to happen.
The incentives are simply not there, and the political costs for anyone who breaks from their party to prop up the other side are far too great. The next speaker of the House is mostly likely to be a Republican who wins with the support of only Republicans, and any talk of a coalition is probably dead now that McCarthy is out of contention.
But it’s worth digging into the idea a little more.
After all, the thinking emerges from an undeniable reality — it’s exceedingly difficult for anyone to cobble together a majority in the current House.
There are essentially three different ways a hypothetical coalition could form — a small number of Republicans help to prop up Democrats, a small number of Democrats help to prop up Republicans, or some sort of centrist compromise emerges.
Let’s address this West Wing-esque fantasy, scenario by scenario.
Moderate Republicans prop up Hakeem Jeffries
“There’s three factions here,” Democratic Rep. Maxwell Frost of Florida told me before the vote on Tuesday, dividing the chamber into Democrats, Republicans, and the hard right. “Those are the three that exist. And we’re the plurality.”
In a sense, he’s right. In January, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries won more votes than McCarthy — though not a majority — the first 11 times the House voted to elected a speaker, eventually falling behind after McCarthy began to win over some of the hard-right holdouts. Democrats stayed united behind Jeffries the whole time.
That reality was enough for Jeffries to declare, in a statement after McCarthy’s ouster, that “traditional Republicans” should “join us in partnership for the good of the country.”
As the dust settled after the vote to boot McCarthy on Tuesday, I spotted Republican Rep. Mike Lawler walking away from the Capitol.
Lawler represents a New York district that President Joe Biden easily won in 2020, and he’s postured as a reasonable deal-maker since coming to Congress. Biden himself once described Lawler as “not one of these MAGA Republicans,” much to the horror of fellow Democrats.
In short, he’s the exact type of Republican you might expect to cross the aisle in a “coalition government” deal scenario.
As reporters peppered him with questions about what happens next, he tried to stay mum, declaring repeatedly that “we’re gonna go to conference and have a discussion.” But when I posed the coalition idea to him, he suddenly snapped out of it — and became livid.
“First of all, the Democrats just joined together with Matt Gaetz to upend the Republican majority and upend the institution of the House of Representatives,” said Lawler. “So whatever hopes of a bipartisan compromise, you can kiss that goodbye.”
So maybe there’s simply too much anger there. After all, folks like Lawler were elected to deliver a Republican majority, not a Democratic one.
But the even larger threat to a Republican-backed Democratic speakership is the simple threat of primary challengers.
“We’ve certainly seen that happen to some Republicans,” Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland acknowledged, even as he argued that there’s a “factual predicate” for a coalition stemming from broad public support for issues like universal background checks for gun purchases and tackling climate change.
Last Congress, 10 Republicans broke with their party to impeach former President Donald Trump after January 6. Eight of them were defeated by Trump-backed primary challengers.
Imagine, for a moment, the attack ads that a primary challenger could run against a Republican who chose to back Democrats.
It’s career suicide.
Democrats prop up a Republican speaker in exchange for concessions
This idea was initially posed to me by Democratic Rep. Greg Casar, a top leader in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He floated a scenario in which Democrats, or at least progressives, secure some sort of commitment from McCarthy in exchange for tanking Gaetz’s motion to vacate. Casar comes from Texas, where Democrats are still allowed to hold some chairmanships in the state House, despite being in the minority.
“The Texas example is that sometimes you vote for a Republican speaker, but then you get a third of the chairs,” Casar told me on Tuesday.
Obviously, Democrats didn’t save McCarthy. And now that a new crop of Republicans are jockeying for the job, it’s not yet clear whether any of those candidates would even need Democratic votes.
But the calculus here is different for Democrats than Republicans.
They already sit in the minority, so they don’t have anything to lose by trying to work with Republicans to extract concessions. It’s hard to imagine a credible primary challenger materializing to challenge Democrats who support a compromise Republican, provided those Democrats can argue they’re getting something in return.
And as Democrats made clear this week, they’re not giving away their votes for free.
Nonetheless, Republicans have little incentive to give them anything — at least as long as they’re jockeying for support amongst one another.
Something in the middle
The final option may be the most fanciful — a centrist speaker supported by roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.
Is that really possible in a Congress and country as polarized as ours?
“I hope it is. I’m trying to accomplish things from the center,” Rep. Wiley Nickel, a moderate Democrat who represents a swingy North Carolina district, told me on Tuesday. “But it’s uncharted territory.”
Much like the first option, any Republican who sacrifices the chance to govern with a Republican majority as (let’s give him credit) Kevin McCarthy was able to do for 9 months will be labeled a traitor.
It’s also unclear what a centrist coalition could even agree on. On the hot-button issues of the day, providing aid to Ukraine and preventing a government shutdown may be the only meaningful things that can garner bipartisan support.
Lastly, we already have some insight into how that might go — just take a look at the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus, a 61-member group made up of roughly equal proportions of Democrats and Republicans.
“This was supposed to be a time when Problem Solvers were supposed to drop their partisanship and do what’s right for America,” Republican Rep. Nick LaLota of New York, a member of the caucus, told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m tremendously disappointed that nobody – no Democrat Problem Solver – stepped up to do so.”
Those Republicans argue that Democrats acted irresponsibly by not supporting the speakership of Kevin McCarthy, a man who launched an impeachment inquiry into Biden just weeks ago and claimed on Sunday that Democrats tried to shut down the government.
Doesn’t exactly bode well for the stability of such a coalition.