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OK, what’s plan D?
If you’re just tuning in to the dysfunction drama on Capitol Hill (or if you’ve lost track of the chaos), here’s a quick recap of why the House of Representatives remains in a state of paralysis:
► Plan A failed because governing was punished. Hardline Republicans axed Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the man who spent years orchestrating his rise to become House speaker, after he relied on Democrats to help pass a short-term funding bill to keep the government open last month.
► Plan B failed because a lesson was learned. McCarthy’s No. 2, Rep. Steve Scalise, failed in the first round of voting to replace McCarthy to get a majority among Republicans. Scalise then declined to wheel and deal to get the position. He’ll remain as House majority leader.
► Plan C failed because the right wing is divisive. Rep. Jim Jordan, a founding member of the hardline Freedom Caucus, couldn’t unite the party in two rounds of voting despite a ruthless pressure campaign placed on Republicans by the right-wing media machine and personal lobbying by Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Jordan could call for another vote, but opposition to him appears to be growing, not receding. With the clock ticking on that short-term funding bill (the government will continue operating until November 17), there appears to be growing momentum to give some additional power to the placeholder, Rep. Patrick McHenry, whose chief qualification may be that he says he has no real interest in the job of House speaker.
When McCarthy got the boot, McHenry was elevated to become the powerless temporary speaker – known as speaker pro tempore – able to keep the House in session but not to pass any legislation.
Elevating McHenry would probably require Democrats’ help
Democrats, after refusing to rescue McCarthy from the fringe of his own Republican conference, could now buy in to giving temporary power to open the House and deal with that spending bill.
The mechanism for such an arrangement could be a simple resolution giving McHenry the temporary power to move appropriations legislation.
“I think it’s imperative that we empower Patrick McHenry to serve, at least for the time being, in that speaker role, so that he can get the House moving again on critical issues including obviously needed additional financial support for Israel,” Rep. Mike Lawler, the New York Republican who cast his vote for McCarthy instead of Jordan in both rounds, told CNN’s Manu Raju after Jordan’s second defeat.
The Hill notes that three former Republican House speakers – former Reps. Newt Gingrich, John Boehner and Paul Ryan – all seemed to endorse the idea of temporarily elevating McHenry.
“America does not have the luxury to stand by and allow a handful of destructive Republicans – or even the legitimate ambitions of good people – to keep the system from working,” Gingrich wrote on his website, suggesting that if no permanent speaker can be selected in the next few days, McHenry should be elevated until the new year.
Jordan is among the Republicans fighting the idea and who say it would essentially be a “coalition government” rather than a Republican speaker – although McHenry is a Republican, and a conservative one at that.
Asked by Raju on Tuesday if Democrats were open to the idea of a sort-of Speaker McHenry, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said this, which sounds very open indeed:
“Our focus right now relates not just to any one individual, but to getting the institution reopened,” said Jeffries, although he added that he and Democrats hold McHenry in high regard. “I think he is respected on our side of the aisle,” Jeffries said.
A speaker, even a temporary one, elected with bipartisan support, would be a major structural pivot in the House of Representatives, which has been governed by partisan speakers for centuries.
A temporary speaker does not solve the leadership crisis
Sarah Binder, a Brookings Institution senior fellow in governance studies and a George Washington University professor, has been posting on X (formerly known as Twitter) about how there is precedent for appointing a speaker pro tempore when it’s not possible to have a speaker.
I asked her by email about why having a temporary speaker would be appealing, and she suggested it’s not a good option, but maybe the least bad option in the face of an institutional leadership crisis.
“A vacant speakership – for whatever reason – signals a potential crisis in the House,” Binder said, adding, “the goal is to get the legislative machinery of the House functioning again.”
I asked if having a speaker with limited power is a return, in some way, to the original way the House speaker was supposed to function, as a more limited traffic cop for the chamber rather than the powerful party bosses we usually have today. She argued it would be “untrodden territory” if McHenry is given new power with help from both parties.
A speaker elected with bipartisanship is not necessarily a sign of bipartisanship
Just because some Republicans and Democrats could (emphasis on the could; this is a very fluid situation) vote together for empowering McHenry does not portend a less partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill, according to Joseph Postell, a politics professor at Hillsdale College. He previously told me about the unprecedented nature of Republicans turning on McCarthy in the first place.
In fact, Postell predicted an even more partisan atmosphere if the House speaker was to permanently become a less powerful position.
“If the Speaker returned to a neutral presiding officer role,” Postell told me by email, “the Majority Leader would likely assume a lot of the power that the Speaker currently has.”
Majority leader is a singularly partisan position, he added, elected by the majority party rather than the entire House.
“This would make the leadership position more partisan, not less partisan,” he said.