The GOP speaker's race is at a standstill. Nobody wants to run. And it seems that anybody who did run couldn't win. It's a question of simple math. To become speaker, you need a majority of votes in the House. Normally the way that works is the majority party first holds an internal election to see whom it will nominate, and then it votes en masse for that person. But with 40 or so Freedom Caucus members refusing to vote for anyone who'd cooperate with the Obama administration in any way, Congress is at a stalemate.
This matters because the speaker controls what bills get to the floor of the House for a vote. And while lots of potential subjects of legislation can be deferred inevitably, the American political system also contains a lot of "must-pass" bills — legislation that, if delayed, causes big disruptions in American life. That's things like the annual appropriations bills that prevent the government from shutting down, and the periodic increases in the debt limit that avoid a national default. So simply doing nothing isn't really an option. But whether or not Republicans should agree to pass these must-pass bills is precisely what is dividing the GOP and bringing on the internal leadership crisis.
Here are seven possible paths forward. All of them, interestingly enough, lead to essentially the same outcome: The Freedom Caucus loses, and the must-pass bills pass.
1) Find someone new and muddle through
The least satisfying and, in many ways, most likely path forward is simply to find a new person to fill the role of speaker and then do the job exactly the way John Boehner did for his first years in office — make unrealistic promises to the right wing of the caucus and then break them at the last possible moment. Downsides to this include new rounds of economically destructive political crises, lots of hurt feelings and ill will, and many exhausting and unnecessary late-night legislative sessions. On the other hand, all that's needed to seal the deal is a little bit of dishonesty and self-deception, both qualities that exist in Congress in spades.
2) A Boehner stomping on the GOP caucus — forever
Another can-kicking option would be for the House to simply not elect a new speaker. Boehner has made it clear that he remains in office as speaker until a successor is chosen, and if the GOP caucus can't pick a successor, that means Boehner sticks around. Since Boehner is already in office, he doesn't need 218 votes. And since he isn't trying to keep his job, he doesn't need to worry about placating the right. A Boehner-led House would simply do very little. "Must-pass" measures like the debt ceiling, appropriations bills, and disaster aid would simply be hashed out between the White House and GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, and then Boehner could bring them to the floor, where they would pass with a mix of GOP and Democratic votes.
After the fall 2016 elections, of course, the House really would need a new speaker. But by then either a Republican will be in the White House, so the whole question of unwillingness to compromise will be off the table, or else the GOP will have lost yet another presidential election and perhaps a chastened right wing will be willing to settle down.
3) A Democratic bailout
A more creative, but structurally similar, scenario would involve 50 or so House Democrats joining with the bulk of Republicans to elect an orthodox conservative Republican to serve as speaker. In exchange, the GOP caucus would need to agree to buck the Freedom Caucus crowd on must-pass legislation and agree to bring these compromise bills to the floor.
Legislative outcomes would be essentially identical to the ones we've been getting, but there would be less posturing and drama, and we would simply skip to the part where McConnell-Obama compromises pass the House despite opposition from many House Republicans.
4) The GOP gets rolled
This seems exceptionally unlikely, but in principle a group of 40 or so moderate Republicans could split from the party and vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker. This kind of thing has happened in a variety of state legislatures but is difficult to imagine on highly polarized Capitol Hill.
But if you'd like to entertain the possibility, Republican defectors could justify it to themselves by arguing that the practical consequences would be small. Speaker Pelosi would have no power to force her GOP backers to vote for tax hikes, environmental regulations, new spending, immigration reform, or any other Democratic priorities. Nor could any such bills pass the Senate even if they somehow did pass the House. In practice, what Speaker Pelosi would be able to do is ensure that compromise bills to keep the government open make it to the floor and pass with bipartisan support.
5) A non-party speaker
An even more far-fetched scenario would involve simply ditching the convention that the speaker of the House be the leader of the majority party. Instead, the US would emulate the UK and other similar systems in which the role of speaker is an essentially nonpartisan one. A bipartisan group of legislators could elect some moderate backbencher as speaker (or could pick two, with an agreed rotation) and let the Democratic and Republican caucuses be led by, respectively, McCarthy and Pelosi. The deal to elect such a speaker would also need to involve the selection of a compromise cross-party group to lead the Rules Committee, operating on a de facto program of allowing must-pass bills to reach the floor while recognizing that in practice nothing else is going to become law under the current partisan configuration.
6) Change the speaker voting rules
This is essentially the opposite of the previous idea: You could change the formal rules governing how the speaker is selected so that having the support of a majority of the members of the majority caucus is good enough to win. That would make the Freedom Caucus irrelevant, and set the stage for some orthodox conservative to take the gavel and recognize that must-pass bills are going to require bipartisan compromise.
7) The Freedom Caucus comes to its senses
All six of the above ideas, ranging from banal can-kicking to outlandish jiujitsu to allow Nancy Pelosi to take over, have the same punchline: Bipartisan must-pass bills to avoid political or economic crises pass, and nothing else does. There are many different ways to resolve the leadership vacuum, in other words, but they all have the same outcome. That's because given the way the American system of concurrent congressional and presidential authority works, this is the only outcome that is remotely viable.
The Freedom Caucus could, in principle, recognize that their demands are ridiculous and impossible to achieve and simply agree to back the speaker candidacy of whomever a majority of Republicans choose. This would involve a lot less chaos and annoying of their colleagues, and would have the exact same policy outcome as all the other scenarios.