Will Democrats Elect the Next GOP Speaker?

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 05: Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) answers reporters questions during his weekly news conference in the Capitol Visitors Center at the U.S. Capitol December 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. When asked about the Republican Party's running against women, Boehner said,
Can you guys help us out here? Photo: Chip Somodevilla/2013 Getty Images

Representative Kevin McCarthy was supposed to be celebrating by now. The Republican majority leader was widely seen as one of the only people in the House capable of drawing the 218 votes necessary to be elected Speaker. But it appears even McCarthy could not reach that threshold, as he suddenly withdrew his name from consideration, just minutes before voting was slated to begin.

Now the election has been postponed and the GOP caucus is in crisis. If McCarthy — a man of the Establishment but with close ties to the tea-party wing — couldn’t unite the conference, who can? 

The difficulty of answering that question has led some to consider unprecedented solutions — including the possibility of the Democratic caucus and a few Establishment Republicans uniting to elect a moderate conservative:

Rep. Charlie Dent (R) says there may have to be a bipartisan coalition on the floor to elect the next speaker.

— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) October 8, 2015

To understand how that could be possible, let’s review the process by which the House elects its Speaker:

What are the rules for voting for a new Speaker?
Unlike the elections for House majority leader, who is selected exclusively by members of the majority conference, the Speaker must be elected by a majority of all House members. Typically, the conference of each major party nominates one candidate, who then receives virtually all his conference’s votes in the “general election.” Thus, the majority party chooses the Speaker, while the minority party performs a ritual of solidarity by all lining up behind the same chosen loser — so, under normal circumstances, the Democrats would have all voted for Nancy Pelosi Thursday afternoon.

That sounds pretty predictable. Are there any weirder possibilities lurking in the rule book?
The Speaker vote doesn’t have to follow tradition. Members are allowed to vote for any member of the House, whether or not he or she has been nominated or even belongs to the same party. In fact, members can vote for literally any American citizen who is over 25 years old — the Constitution doesn’t stipulate that the Speaker has to be a member of Congress.

Has anyone ever voted for a candidate of the other party?
No one in the modern era has ever actually voted for a nonmember. And from 1943 to 1995, all members of the House voted for their party’s official nominee. But in six of the nine Speaker elections since, some representatives voted for members of their party who hadn’t received the party’s nomination. And in 2001, Representative Jim Traficant of Ohio became the first and only Democratic House member of the modern era to vote for the GOP’s nominee for Speaker when he raised his hand for Dennis Hastert.

So Democrats might potentially decide the Republican leader?
One crossover vote — from one member, in one election — does not a precedent make. But Representative Charlie Dent (R-PA) nonetheless told CNN minutes after McCarthy withdrew, to elect the next Speaker “we [may] have to assemble a bipartisan coalition, that’s the reality of this place.”

Dent’s proposal is self-serving — he’s among the most Democrat-friendly Republicans in the House. But it is true that most of the significant legislation passed in the Boehner era was voted into law by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. Thus, Dent’s suggestion does have a certain logic — if that bipartisan coalition is actually the most productive and functional group within the House, why shouldn’t it chose the chamber’s leader?

If the Speaker doesn’t have to be an elected member of Congress, does that mean the Republicans could bring Eric Cantor out of retirement?
One of the GOP’s more cockamamie alternatives would be to bring Cantor out of retirement. Cantor had been Boehner’s presumed successor right up until some libertarian economics professor upset him in last year’s primary. Or else they could tap Mitt Romney — he united the party once, right? Or Ray Romano, since everybody loves him.

If none of those pan out, the Establishment could persuade tea-party rejectionists to play hooky — the Speaker doesn’t actually need to be elected by a majority of House members, only a majority of all the House members who show up to vote.

Okay, but what’s more likely to happen?
Obviously, these scenarios are all far less probable than the party lining up behind some unifying figure. The renegade House Freedom Caucus seems more invested in some tweaks to procedural rules than handpicking the next Speaker. But with popular representatives like Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Trey Gowdy (R-SC) staunchly refusing to throw their hats in the ring — and current candidates Daniel Webster (R-FL) and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) seen as divisive even within their own conference — it may be prudent to expect the unexpected. 

Does this all mean John Boehner will be sticking around for a while?
Boehner’s late-September resignation was conditional on members electing a new leader. Stepping down was meant to prevent the very kind of caucus infighting now spilling into the streets. “It had become clear to me that this prolonged leadership turmoil would do irreparable harm to the institution,” he said during his surprise announcement. 

But the turmoil will remain, and so it seems, so will Boehner for the time being. “After Leader McCarthy’s announcement, members of the House Republican Conference will not vote today for a new Speaker,” Boehner said in a stunned statement. “As I have said previously, I will serve as Speaker until the House votes to elect a new Speaker.”

What happens if Boehner can’t take it anymore and decides to walk away?
If the camel-tugging Ohioan chooses to split sooner rather than later, he has the full power to designate an acting Speaker, or Speaker pro tempore, to fill the vacancy until the body elects a new leader. 

According to the House Rules: “In the case of a vacancy in the office of Speaker, the next Member on the list described in subdivision (B) shall act as Speaker pro tempore until the election of a Speaker or a Speaker pro tempore. Pending such election the Member acting as Speaker pro tempore may exercise such authorities of the Office of Speaker as may be necessary and appropriate to that end.”

Representatives Daniel Webster, Steve Scalise, or Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Republican Conference chairperson, might reasonably all be on Boehner’s short list.

But if he sticks around and the infighting continues, Boehner might still be guiding his chaotic caucus when the budget fights resume in December.