Moderates could unite amid House speaker chaos. Why don’t they?
Just hours before a vote to oust Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as the House speaker Tuesday, a group of Democrats and Republicans met in a conference room on the third floor of the Cannon House Office Building to make a last-ditch attempt to avoid the history that was soon to be made.
The group was drawn from the 64-member bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, representatives who consider themselves more moderate and more pragmatic than their parties’ firebrands. Some hailed from swing districts where voters might applaud bipartisan action.
For over an hour, people familiar with the session said, Republicans in the group begged Democrats to support the stability of the institution by agreeing to save McCarthy — the speaker who had spent nine months catering to the most extreme elements in his party and who helped resurrect Donald Trump’s image after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Democrats were bewildered, the people said. They felt McCarthy had done little to earn their trust — and had not asked for their help.
They countered by reminding Republicans that they believed the House needed to first pass new rules to increase the minority party’s power and make it harder to oust the speaker in the future, insulating him from far-right challenges.
Kevin McCarthy ousted as speaker
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In another country, or perhaps another political system or environment, these were the members who might have banded together to support a candidate for leader and spare the government and the country unprecedented chaos.
Instead, the tenor of the meeting turned heated. It ended with no agreement — and McCarthy’s fate was sealed. Later that afternoon, all of the House’s 208 Democrats joined with eight conservative Republicans to vote McCarthy out of his job, firing a speaker for the first time in U.S. history.
The failure of the last-ditch effort by the self-styled “problem solvers” underscores how unlikely it will be for the House to solve its leadership vacuum in the coming days through some kind of unity government that might otherwise seem the most obvious path forward.
Even with government funding set to lapse in less than 45 days, aide to Ukraine in limbo and America’s reputation as a functioning democracy on the line, there was little sign this week of interest in cobbling together a bipartisan coalition that could be the fastest way to collect the 217 votes necessary to elect a speaker.
“It really hurts me for what happened here,” Problem Solvers Caucus member Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) said in an interview Wednesday, bemoaning that McCarthy was overthrown because he supported a measure on Saturday backed by Democrats that avoided a government shutdown. “He was working on behalf of the American people — that was not a political decision. That was the right thing to do for our country and he got fired? I don’t understand the game anymore.”
A Democrat in the meeting countered that a trust deficit made it impossible to make a deal with their GOP counterparts before concrete action on the rules.
“Nobody trusts Kevin to keep their word,” said the lawmaker, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose conversations from a private meeting.
Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), McCarthy’s second-in-command, officially announced a bid for speaker Wednesday, as did Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a conservative firebrand who once butted heads with McCarthy in the battle to become the GOP leader in 2018. Other candidates may emerge in the coming days, but Scalise and Jordan have so far indicated that they plan to win the job by appealing to Republicans alone.
As GOP lawmakers ducked in and out of meetings this week, making pitches to one another in initial bids to garner support for the top job, rank-and-file members ruled out the imminent possibility of a bipartisan effort to save them from their latest state of chaos.
“I think the Republican conference will be stronger when we first work with ourselves,” Rep. August Pfluger (R-Tex.) said Wednesday on his way to a lunch with the Texas delegation where prospective speakers sounded out potential allies.
Compromise, even among pragmatic members in swing districts, is a tall order in this political environment. Moderate Democrats and Republicans face the constant threat of primaries, and many live in fear of being targeting by powerful conservative media. Even members who represent swing districts fret about being punished by extreme voters in primary elections, a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus said.
House rules adopted in a compromise that allowed McCarthy to win the job in January — after days of strife and 15 ballots — have also empowered individual members with outsize influence over the House GOP conference, exacerbating the party’s partisan polarization. A motion to vacate, for example, is a congressional procedure to remove a presiding officer from a position that can be triggered by just one House member. Once initiated, it takes priority on the House floor ahead of all other business. This week, the motion was moved by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a Trump ally.
On top of all that, lingering anger over the events of the past week could impede the kind of one-on-one negotiations necessary to craft any kind of bipartisan deal in the days ahead.
Instead of charting a path forward, some Republican members of the Problem Solvers Caucus on Tuesday evening and into Wednesday morning were threatening to quit.
“People over politics? Get real,” Rep. Michael Lawler (R-N.Y.) tweeted at Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), complaining that Jeffries had supported the effort to oust McCarthy. “You aligned yourself with Matt Gaetz to upend the institution and seek political gain in the process. You could have put the country first by refusing to partake in this fraud.”
Lawler, a first-term member from a district that voted for President Biden in 2020, is a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus.
“You could also do the right thing, Lawler,” fellow New Yorker, liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D), responded on X, which was formerly known as Twitter. “Your district voted for Biden by 10 pts. You could end this by representing and voting for Jeffries.”
Democrats, too, showed little appetite this week for crossing party lines to enter a coalition with Republicans, in part because many said they were convinced no willing partners exist in a post-Trump GOP.
“Never say never,” one Democratic lawmaker said. “But I don’t know that people have gotten that far.”
Speaking on a panel hosted by the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday, former representative Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) recalled that when then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) attempted to overthrow House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2015, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) promised Boehner that she would instruct her members in the Democratic caucus to vote against ousting him.
“She is an institutionalist,” Lipinski explained.
In the end, Boehner announced his retirement from Congress and Democrats did not face that hard choice.
McCarthy told reporters Tuesday evening that Pelosi, now speaker emerita, had made a similar assurance to him in the days ahead of the vote — that she promised to support him in the face of a challenge. But Pelosi, mourning the death of the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), remained in California and did not vote Tuesday — and in a post on X, she said Republicans must solve the speaker conundrum on their own.
“The Speaker of the House is chosen by the Majority Party. In this Congress, it is the responsibility of House Republicans to choose a nominee & elect the Speaker on the Floor,” she wrote ahead of the vote. “At this time there is no justification for a departure from this tradition.”
In an interview, Lipinski said he thinks Democrats missed the opportunity to work with Republicans this week — the latest sign of an institution that is “really, really broken.’
“How can you ask the next GOP speaker to stand up to the crazies in their party if Democrats are just going to join the crazies to knock you out?” he said.
Campaigns to fill the leadership vacancy have already started. The House has adjourned for the remainder of the week, but Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), who is serving in the role of speaker pro tempore, is expected to hold a candidate forum next Tuesday. It’s unclear how long the process will take, but in the meantime, legislative business has come to a halt.
Michael Thorning, a director at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said achieving a true coalition government in the House would require more than Democrats crossing the aisle to vote for a Republican speaker but a form of genuine power-sharing that has yet to be seen in the lower chamber.
Thorning listed a number of novel possibilities, including appointing an even number of Republicans and Democrats on key committees, sharing certain committee chairmanships or crafting a bipartisan agreement over a slate of policy items to be brought to the House floor for votes. The current level of acrimony between the two parties, however, would probably be a barrier to any such agreement, he said.
“This idea is really fighting uphill against the status quo and the dynamic in Congress that people are used to — it would essentially take a revolt against both parties’ leadership to make this happen, and I don’t know that the will to do that is there,” Thorning added.
Surprising bipartisan coalitions have emerged twice to elect leaders of state legislatures in the last year, a reminder that the model appears impossible — until it happens.
In January, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, nearly evenly divided between the parties, elected an independent speaker who promised to caucus with neither party and hire a bipartisan staff. That same month, Democrats and moderate Republicans in Ohio joined to appoint a more moderate GOP speaker over a far-right lawmaker who was the choice of the party establishment.
At the beginning of the year, some moderate lawmakers engaged in tentative conversations about trying something similar in Congress ahead of the tortured slog McCarthy undertook to become House speaker in the first place. The group surreptitiously circulated a backup candidate who was respected by members of both parties and who had announced he was retiring from Congress: Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).
Upton, now out of Congress, said he was not pushing the idea, earning him an angry tirade on social media by Trump.
“Maybe if the race had gone a couple more ballots — like four or five — maybe there would have been more legs to the story,” Upton said. But he said the experience was a reminder of just how difficult it would be for a member to cross the line and vote for the speaker of the opposing party.
“Go back to every speaker that you know — Tom Foley, Jim Wright, Newt Gingrich, Kevin, Nancy — they’re all vilified by the opposing party, and to be one that casts across the aisle is awfully difficult for any member on either side and it just doesn’t happen,” he added.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who hails from a district won by Biden in 2020, expressed skepticism that any candidate could win 217 votes in the Republican conference alone, surmising that whoever wants to be speaker might have to reach across the aisle eventually.
“At some point, someone’s going to have to give and maybe we’re going into waters that have never been crossed before,” Bacon said, adding that he has attempted to soothe his fellow Republicans and convince them that Democrats are not the ones to be blamed for the current predicament.
“I asked a few people,” he said, “Would you have voted for Nancy Pelosi?”