On Thursday morning, House Republican leaders had hoped they’d finally found a way out of their bitter speaker’s race standoff. The idea was, they’d punt the contest until January, when Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) would again try to win over Republican holdouts. In the meantime, they’d empower the guy currently sitting in the speaker chair on a temporary basis, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC).
Jordan himself had agreed to the plan. But when it was presented at the Republican conference, many rank-and-file members recoiled from it. The right was furious, viewing the proposal as an attempt to undercut them and deal with Democrats. So by the afternoon, the McHenry proposal appeared to be dead, and Jordan said he’d keep trying to win the speaker’s race now — placing us back where we started at the beginning of the week.
Republicans’ staring contest of a speaker’s race, then, is continuing, with no resolution in sight. Here’s the GOP’s math problem:
- 217 out of 221 Republicans need to vote for the GOP’s speaker candidate on the House floor to elect him (if all Democrats oppose him).
- Roughly 180 Republicans appear to be team players who will happily back any nominee preferred by most of the conference.
- But there are about 20 holdouts on the right who have embraced hardball tactics to try and force a more right-wing speaker to be elected. Think of them as an “Only Jordan” bloc.
- And now there’s a newly emerged roughly 20-person “Never Jordan” bloc, composed of mostly mainstream or swing-district members who are fighting back against the right-wingers.
So what are the ways this could end?
1) The “Never Jordan” bloc caves: Jordan is currently the GOP’s speaker nominee, and he’s still trying to win over enough support among the 22 Republicans who opposed him on the most recent House floor vote.
Some of these members are powerful Appropriations Committee Republicans who could be given promises over how Jordan will handle spending fights. Others represent swing districts and fear support for an extremist candidate like Jordan could hurt their reelection, but they’ll need support and fundraising from the party establishment to keep their seats. And other holdouts appear to be motivated by personal gripes over how Jordan treated the previous speaker nominee, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) — maybe their feelings could be assuaged?
2) The “Only Jordan” bloc settles for someone else: If Jordan can’t win over enough holdouts and quits the contest as Scalise did, the GOP will go back to the drawing board and try to select another speaker nominee.
The question then will be whether that person can win over the hardcore Jordan supporters on the right. These recalcitrant right-wingers made it difficult for Kevin McCarthy to be elected speaker in the first place in January — but he did eventually win enough of them over. Perhaps another candidate, not yet in the race, could do the same. (Or maybe McCarthy could do it again.)
3) Some Republicans cut a deal with Democrats: If neither bloc of GOP holdouts is in the mood to cave, one other option is to rely on Democrats to get a Republican speaker candidate elected. In theory, such a deal could take place with a small group of Democratic moderates, or through a deal cut with Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) that has the Democratic Party’s official approval.
Any such deal would draw fury from conservative media, and GOP leaders have already tried to denounce any idea for a “coalition government.” This is why the recent proposal to empower McHenry via some Democratic votes got dropped like a hot potato. But if the far right truly seems impossible to win over, a bipartisan deal may seem to mainstream Republicans like the only option to keep the government open.
4) McHenry just takes the reins without an official vote: Up to this point, speaker pro tempore McHenry has interpreted his duties as limited to facilitating the election of a new speaker. He has said he doesn’t want to do any more than this, and the belief within the GOP conference was that for him to be able to do more, the House would have to vote to empower him.
Outside experts, though, have argued that such a vote might not be necessary. Brendan Buck, a former aide to speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, wrote a New York Times op-ed arguing that McHenry “may simply need to act on his own.” That is, he should start calling up resolutions or bills, and if any member of Congress objects, just put it to a vote and see if a majority of the House backs him. “All of this is unstable and unsustainable, but so too is our current course,” Buck wrote.
5) It doesn’t end: Finally, for the sake of completion, one more possibility (albeit right now an extremely remote one) is that the House simply remains speaker-less until 2025. This would mean an unprecedented, devastating 13-month government shutdown with unforeseen consequences — something enough Republicans would likely want to cut short so they won’t be blamed for it. It would also mean an end to legislation for the next year, including perceived “must-pass” measures like aid to Israel. So it seems unlikely things would go this far. But there’s a first time for everything.