The Next Speaker of the House May Be Elected By a Bipartisan Coalition

I don’t think too many people are thinking about this yet, but there’s an outcome to the midterm elections we can already assume. At least, we can assume it with much more confidence than we can predict whether the Democrats or Republicans will emerge in control of the House and Senate. It is very likely that the majority in the House will be so narrow that it will be difficult or perhaps impossible for anyone to win the speakership on the first ballot.

It will not be completely shocking if the Democrats fail to win a majority of seats in the House, but it’s almost unthinkable that they won’t gain enough seats to come very close. That means that the Republicans will need close to internal unanimity to elect a speaker. There’s not much chance of that.

Meanwhile, if the Democrats take the majority, it’s likely to be by a half dozen seats or less. Even if they have a ten or fifteen seat majority, which would require a landslide that is not yet predicted, there are enough candidates and sitting members who have pledged not to vote for Nancy Pelosi that she very well might not be able to grasp the gavel a second time.

Speakers are elected by the whole House, so members are technically able to vote for candidates from the opposing party. That’s what Republican Rep. Tom Reed is threatening to do, perhaps in favor of Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. Hoyer won’t be a candidate on the first ballot unless Pelosi decides not to run, but he’d be the logical second choice for the Democrats. Yet, there are enough younger Democrats who have expressed a preference for a new generation of leadership that Hoyer might not be able to win enough unanimity from his own caucus to prevail on a second ballot without getting some help from Republican members.

The same thing could happen if the Republicans narrowly hold onto their majority and Kevin McCarthy fails (again) to muster support for the speakership. Some Democrats could cross the aisle to assure that the Speaker comes from the more moderate wing of the GOP.

These crossover scenarios aren’t necessarily likely outcomes of the midterms, but it will not be easy for anyone to get a majority of the House to support them. Different interest groups will emerge to make demands, and some of those demands may have significant bipartisan support. Here’s one example of how that is already shaping up:

[Rep. Tom] Reed co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which last week unveiled “Break the Gridlock,” a package of proposed House rule changes.

He and New Jersey’s Josh Gottheimer, the Democratic co-chair, said in separate interviews their caucus devises bipartisan approaches to divisive issues like immigration, health care and gun safety that hit roadblocks in getting to the floor.

Their package aims to address that dynamic by including a fast-track process for legislation co-sponsored by at least two-thirds of the House; a guarantee each member gets at least one markup of a bill they file to a committee they serve on if it has a co-sponsor across the aisle; a three-fifths threshold to pass bills under a closed rule; and at least one germane amendment from each party for structured rules.

Three dozen — 23 Democrats and 13 Republicans — of the 46-member Problem Solvers Caucus endorsed the package, but not all say their vote for speaker is conditional on support of the proposals. Six of the members backing the package are retiring or running for other office and won’t have a vote for speaker.

Those are procedural demands, but there could be more partisan groups that emerge demanding a vote on this or that bill or issue. On the Democratic side, either or both the moderates and the progressives could withhold support for anyone not of their own group, and that could devolve into a nasty game of chicken or eventually necessitate the moderates to go looking for Republican votes that will come with their own demands. The exact same thing could happen in reverse with Main Street Republicans looking for Democrats to help them ward off a Freedom Caucus speaker of the House.

The closer the election is, the more likely it will be that electing a new speaker becomes an extended process involving a lot of possible cross-party haggling.

Maybe Nancy Pelosi will win on the first ballot, but that outcome looks remote at the moment. Her best chance is that the Democrats win by much more than expected and people are in a mood to give her credit.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.