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The game theory of the Republican speakership crisis
The moderates finally fought back against the Freedom Caucus. But how to solve for the equilibrium isn't so clear.
The House of Representatives has gone more than two weeks without having a Speaker after Kevin McCarthy was ousted on Oct. 3. Between what it tells us about the state of the Republican Party and the implications for next year’s elections, this is a subject that I know is of interest to Silver Bulletin readers. But the story is both fast-moving and detail-driven, the sort of story where you can risk looking foolish with a half-baked take.
So instead I’m bringing you a very detailed analysis from one of the best people I can imagine to write on this subject: Matt Glassman, a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. Glassman is an expert in Congressional procedure, having worked on the Hill for a decade. He’s also an avid bridge and poker player, and he has an excellent Substack, Matt’s Five Points, that I’d highly recommend. I’m aware that the situation is fluid, but I think most of this analysis should hold however voting goes over the next few days.
Thanks for reading, and please don’t hesitate to consider a subscription! My policy is to pay when others write for Silver Bulletin, and having a larger subscriber base makes it easier to run guest posts like these. —Nate
Things are very bizarre right now in the House of Representatives.
Yesterday afternoon, the House held a vote to elect a new Speaker. All 212 Democrats voted for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the minority leader. Representative Jim Jordan (OH), the nominee of the Republican conference, got 200 votes. Twenty other Republican votes were scattered among seven candidates.
Since nobody got a majority, a Speaker was not elected. Speaker pro tem Patrick McHenry (NC) quickly put the House into recess rather than proceed to a second ballot. Jordan and his allies hoped to corral enough votes to come back to the floor and try again, but by 6:30 they had given up. McHenry returned to the floor and adjourned the House for the night — figuring they’d try again tomorrow.
Yesterday’s failure comes two weeks after the House agreed to a resolution, 216-210, vacating the Office of the Speaker. Since then, the Republican House majority has been unable to coordinate on a candidate. After almost a week of party discussions and candidate forums, the GOP conference nominated Majority Leader Steve Scalise (LA) last Wednesday morning, in a secret-ballot conference vote of 113-99.
By Thursday night, Scalise had withdrawn his name from consideration, after it became clear that he would fall far short of the votes needed on the House floor; too many Republicans simply would not vote for him. And he got only tepid support from both his rival for the nomination (Jordan) and from former Speaker McCarthy.
All of this comes in the context of a Republican majority that has been unable to unite for virtually the entire 118th Congress. It took 15 ballots to elect McCarthy in January, as twenty conservative Republicans, mostly aligned with the House Freedom Caucus (HFC), denied McCarthy a floor majority until he gave into their demands for rules changes, improved committee assignments, and policy promises.
That fragile coalition lasted less than six months. After McCarthy angered HFC Members by cutting a deal to raise the debt limit and structure the fiscal year 2024 appropriations numbers, they retaliated by blocking three leadership agenda items from reaching the floor, more such defeats than had occurred for House leadership in the previous two decades combined.
When McCarthy refused to shut down the government in September, and instead the House passed a continuing resolution with bipartisan support, it was the last straw. Representative Gaetz (FL) offered a resolution to vacate the Office of the Speaker on October 3rd. For the first time in House history, it succeeded.
What the heck is going on in the House? We usually think of the Senate as the place where the majority party struggles, fighting minority filibusters, suffering policy gridlock, and building painstaking compromises. The House, by contrast, is generally dominated by the majority party, methodically moving in lockstep as leaders pass partisan policies, often with little visible internal dissent. How can the majority party be unable to even elect a leader?
A combination of internal party divisions, a narrow balance of power, and a variety of peculiar chamber and party rules have prevented Republicans from creating a stable majority procedural coalition. And they may never get there this Congress, even if they manage to elect a Speaker.
The Speakership is not a prize you win, it’s a coalition you lead
The Speaker of the House wields a lot of power. The House Rules empower the Speaker with all sorts of authority, from the ability to set certain parts of the agenda on the House floor to unilateral control over the physical office space in the House wing of the Capitol building. The Speaker can delay votes. He can appoint conference committees. He provides funds for Member travel, and he rules on procedural disputes. And he is granted significant staffing resources that can be deployed in political confrontations.
But most of the Speaker’s political power is not derived from these formal authorities. Instead, he relies on the implicit and ongoing backing of a majority of the Members of the House to maintain his control over the chamber. Absent that durable coalition, the Speaker’s power to control the chamber agenda and influence the policy outcomes withers. And that’s because the House is fundamentally controlled by the majority. Any 218 Members who are hellbent on doing something–or not doing something–will eventually win in the House. And no one, not even the Speaker, has any hope of stopping them.
In the modern House, the Speaker almost always has a partisan majority that gives him this deferential backing to create a procedural coalition. That is, backbench members vote in lockstep on procedural matters such as what bills to consider and what rules to consider them under, even if they are opposed to the actual legislation. They do this because the benefits they receive from the party, such as committee assignments, electoral support, and the help of other party members on bills they do like, outweigh the small costs of occasionally having bills on the floor they oppose. Bucking the party on procedural votes is a serious transgression.
In turn, the empowered leadership supports the backbenchers, by raising massive sums of money and spreading it around to campaigns, by protecting the Members from tough votes from coming up on the floor, and by developing a party program and negotiating deals between party factions, as well as with the Senate and president.
McCarthy’s problem during the 118th Congress was that he never had a stable procedural coalition. When he finally won the Speakership in January, the vote was 216-212 with six Republicans voting present. The transactional deal he struck with the dissenting faction of conservative hardliners won him just enough of their passive support to secure the Speakership, but it did not win him the durable procedural coalition or the difference needed to craft deals with the Democratic Senate or President Biden. As soon as McCarthy did cut those deals, the Freedom Caucus withdrew their support.
This move stripped the Speaker and the leadership of power. The leadership relies on the coalition to provide the votes for special rules, which is how most controversial bills are brought to the House floor. For instance, once the Freedom Caucus withdrew their support, a very conservative Defense Appropriations Act—a bill that had no chance of passing the Senate and normally would have thrilled House GOP conservatives—could not make it onto the House floor. It was stopped dead in its tracks by a coalition of the minority Democrats and enough conservative Republicans to make a majority.
Consequently, anyone looking to be Speaker—McCarthy, Scalise, Jordan, or otherwise—needs to not only find a way to win a majority on the floor during the election of the Speaker, but also needs to secure a party settlement that brings the various factions into an ongoing procedural coalition. Absent the creation of that stable coalition, every vote on a special rule to bring legislation to the floor is a potential failure. And that’s because every procedural vote in the House is essentially a revote on the Speakership. If the procedural coalition collapses, the Speakership collapses.
This is why it never made any sense for McCarthy to seek Democratic votes to bail him out when his partisan procedural coalition was failing. If Democrats had helped McCarthy win the Speakership in January—perhaps by voting present, as many observers suggested they could do in exchange for some goodies—it might have won him the office, but it would have left him in the exact same bind on the very next vote (the vote on the rules package). Unless he was willing to create a permanent procedural majority coalition with the Democrats, there was no point in getting their help that one time. His only choice was to try to make peace with the GOP rebels. Ditto on the resolution to vacate the Speakership.
Asymmetric factional hardball meets a narrow majority
Congressional partisan majorities inevitably contain an ideologically diverse set of members; it’s not possible for two parties to capture the breadth of political positions among 435 Americans elected from districts with distinct demographic, industrial, cultural, and regional features. One popular way to think about the House Republicans is as a set of five families. The families range from the Republican members of moderate bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus all the way to the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus. During the 118th Congress, Speaker McCarthy encouraged regular meetings of the leaders of the five families, in order to broker party consensus among the factions.
While factions of the majority party always compete and bargain for internal influence over the agenda and policy choices in the House, they can also play political hardball, threatening to withdraw their support for party legislation, or even their support for the procedural coalition itself, unless their demands are met. While this sort of party disloyalty was relatively rare a generation ago, it has sharply increased since 1995, and especially since 2010.
In both parties, for example, we’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of Members voting against their party nominee for Speaker, something virtually unheard of 30 years ago. This culminated in January with the factional GOP struggle to elect McCarthy, where the House needed multiple ballots to elect a Speaker for the first time in 100 years, as Freedom Caucus-aligned Republicans refused to vote for McCarthy until he agreed to reduce the procedural power of the Speakership and make policy concessions.
The House Freedom Caucus has continually shown itself more willing to resort to hardball tactics than other factions of the House GOP. Many Freedom Caucus members routinely vote against all the budget and appropriations bills that eventually become law. They constantly criticize party leaders for compromising and crafting legislative deals with Democrats, and orient themselves publicly in opposition to the GOP leadership. Other GOP factions will occasionally talk tough — but it’s almost unheard of, for instance, for the moderate Problem Solvers to threaten hardball, much less actually abandon the party leadership.
This asymmetry gives the Freedom Caucus significant leverage over the party, since they have a credible threat to abandon the party on policy and procedural issues, whereas other groups generally do not. And it reflects their general antipathy toward the party itself. While mainstream House GOP members and particularly moderates rely on the party for campaign resources and live in constant fear of primary challenges, Freedom Caucus members tend to be the members least embedded, and least beholden to, the traditional Republican party apparatus.
In fact, the core brand of the Freedom Caucus is their opposition to the GOP House leadership. It’s almost impossible for the party leadership to discipline HFC members and induce party loyalty, because they prefer to be at odds with the leadership; defeating their policy proposals, cutting them out of negotiations, or calling them out publicly as disloyal to the party only serves to reinforce their brand among their constituents and allies in conservative media.
In many cases, the Freedom Caucus actually drives policy to the left, as they leave the leadership no choice but to use Democratic votes to approve must-pass spending bills or keep the government from shutting down. But this is exactly what many Freedom Caucus members desire: by withdrawing their support for leadership, they can position themselves as true and pure conservatives. When the leadership then has no choice but to cut deals with Democrats, the Freedom Caucus can hammer the leaders in public for being weak and unprincipled. In some sense the Freedom Caucus can’t lose, because every loss is just another betrayal by the hated GOP leadership, which is often exactly what they are seeking.
This has been particularly dramatic in the 118th Congress because of the narrow majority held by the Republicans in the House. With a 221-212 seat advantage, the GOP can only afford to lose four votes on any given question. That means any five members of the party who are willing to play hardball can control the balance of power in the House. And once you control the balance of power, you effectively control the House.
Not surprisingly, this has empowered Freedom Caucus members. While they have in the past had enough Members to make up the balance of power in the House, it’s difficult even for the Freedom Caucus to get 20 or more Members to commit and follow-through to using hardball tactics to control the House. But if you only need five Members, it’s relatively easy to remain solid in the face of political pressure.1
And so the story of the 118th Congress has largely been one of the Freedom Caucus holding the GOP leadership hostage, forcing leadership to either sign on to their extreme conservative populist agenda—one that has no chance of policy success in the Senate or with President Biden—or see their procedural majority fall apart. There’s no compromise. You either do what they want, or you go work with the Democrats after they abandon you. It’s a win/win for them, in any case. They either get their policies, or they get their betrayal narrative.
It happened on the Speakership vote. It happened on the debt limit deal. It happened on the appropriations bills. And it happened on the shutdown.
Enter the Resolution to Vacate the Office of the Speaker
These battles culminated on October 3rd when Representative Gaetz, angered by McCarthy’s deal to avert a shutdown, offered a privileged resolution to vacate the Office of the Speaker (often mistakenly referred to as a “motion to vacate”). Under House Rule IX, any Member can unilaterally offer such a resolution from the floor as a Question of Privilege, and there’s no way the leadership can stop them.
Once Gaetz offered his resolution, a majority was either going to remove McCarthy from the Speakership, or sustain him. The important feature of this procedural situation (and other procedural votes in a legislature) is that it structurally forces the choice about McCarthy’s fate onto the Democrats; 96% of Republicans voted to retain McCarthy; only Gaetz and seven other hardline conservative Republicans voted to remove him. The only question is how the Democrats would vote. They could vote yes, no, present, or not vote. Any of those choices, in any combination, would effectively decide McCarthy’s fate. There was no sitting out.
In the end, they all voted to remove McCarthy. Many people wondered afterwards why McCarthy did not offer the Democrats a bargain in order to sustain him. The answer is that the logic of the procedural coalition wouldn’t allow it. As with the Speakership vote in January, McCarthy didn’t need one vote, one time. He needed an ongoing procedural coalition. Unless the Democrats were going to form a permanent alliance with him, saving him on the vacate vote wouldn’t have done any good. In fact, it would have simply turned more Republicans against him, as whatever concessions he gave the Democrats would have certainly moved policy to the left.
And if McCarthy could not offer the Democrats anything, then they had little incentive to altruistically save him. They were already angry at him for springing the CR deal to keep the government open on them with almost no notice—and perhaps in an attempt to pin the shutdown on them—and most Democrats saw little upside to bailing the GOP out of political chaos. Even moderate Democrats, who might be tempted to work with McCarthy ideologically, simply saw the situation as one where they would simply be saving the person trying to defeat them for reelection and take their jobs.
The only people bound to win were Gaetz and the Freedom Caucus. They had forced McCarthy to a choice between shutting down the government to back their fiscal vision, or working with the Democrats and betraying them. For them, it was a win/win. Now McCarthy would either be removed as punishment for his betrayal, or he would double-down on his betrayal and be bailed out by Democrats. Another win/win. The image of Gaetz standing on the Capitol steps after noticing his intention to move the vacate resolution is everything you need to know about the situation: a massive crowd of reporters and TV cameras, making him and his Freedom Caucus allies the center of media attention as he railed against McCarthy and the leadership’s betrayal of both the Republican party and true conservative principles.
One problem with vacating the Office of Speaker in this manner is that it doesn’t immediately provide you with a new Speaker who commands a procedural majority. The idea behind the rule allowing for the Office to be vacated is that the existing majority in the House might be displaced by a new majority, and that new majority needs a mechanism to take control of the chamber. But the strategy of Gaetz and the reliance on the minority to provide the votes short-circuits the procedure. So we’re left with no Speaker, but also no new procedural majority coalition ready to take over.2 And that’s still where we are, two weeks later.
The Republican Conference rules prove themselves outdated
Immediately after the resolution succeeded and the Speakership was vacated, Patrick McHenry took the chair as Speaker pro tempore under the terms of Rule I, Clause 8(b)(3), which was adopted as a continuity of government measure after 9/11 and provides for a temporary unelected Speaker whenever the Office is vacated. As this was the first instance of a vacancy since the rules change, no one was (or is) exactly sure about the extent of McHenry’s power. But everyone agrees it is up to the House to decide, and the consensus in both parties right now is that, absent specific authorization from the House, McHenry has only the power to conduct a new Speaker election. All other business in the House would be suspended until then.
After taking almost a full week to allow candidates to emerge and groups to hold informal forums with them, Democrats and Republicans met in private to conduct party nominating elections for the Speakership. The Democrats met for less than 15 minutes, and unanimously elected Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, to no one’s surprise.
The GOP contest was much more tense, as it featured two candidates with deep bases of support within the party: Majority Leader Steve Scalise and former Freedom Caucus chairman (and co-founder) Jim Jordan, who had in recent years moved toward the leadership and played nice, but still retained much of Freedom Caucus mentality and approach to politics.
Under the rules of the GOP conference, nominations for the Speaker are conducted as secret ballot elections, with a majority needed to win. There are runoff provisions for subsequent ballots to guarantee someone eventually gets a majority. This is how both parties have conducted their Speakership nominations for decades.
But the January fight over the Speakership had laid bare what everyone had always known was a potential weakness of this arrangement: you only need a majority of the conference (112 currently, including delegates eligible to vote in conference) to secure the nomination, but in the House floor vote you need essentially everybody in the party, since you need a majority of the House (217 right now) and the minority is not going to help you.
This was never much of a problem in the past, because norms of party loyalty— combined with strong threats of punishment from the leadership for defecting on the floor—kept party members in line. Even when the Democratic party was hopelessly divided in the 20th century between northern and southern factions that disagreed ferociously on social issues and particularly civil rights, they rarely had a problem electing a Speaker. Ditto with the Republicans. You vote for who you want in the caucus/conference, and then you support the party nominee on the floor. Simple as that.
And obviously, we saw all this in action during the Speakership contest in January. McCarthy won the nomination in a 188-31 landslide in the conference last November. But it still took him 15 ballots on the floor, because 20 or so Republicans refused to vote for him until he made a series of concessions.
Recognizing this reality and wanting to avoid a nasty floor fight, 94 GOP members proposed an amendment to the conference rules, hoping to alter procedures prior to the nomination vote. The idea was to require 217 votes in the conference for nomination, in an attempt to bring the floor fight behind closed doors, and unify the party ahead of time.
There are good arguments for and against such a change, but ultimately many Republicans were driven by short-term political calculations. Scalise was pretty sure he had a majority of the conference behind him, so he and his supporters largely publicly opposed it. Jordan backed it, reflecting the general belief that he was not going to get a majority in conference, and thus his best hope was to raise the threshold and hope Scalise could not get there. In the end, the amendments failed and the GOP retained the majority rule.
Scalise then won the conference nomination, by a secret ballot vote of 113-99. That was a terrible result for anyone hoping to quickly put together a unified procedural coalition on the floor to deliver a quick first-ballot majority vote. The nomination had been decided, but the majority procedural coalition was nowhere near put together. Scalise would be starting in a far worse position than McCarthy had in the fall, needing to almost double his support. And unlike McCarthy, he wouldn’t have six weeks and an array of goodies (such as committee assignments) to hand out as potential favors to buy-up votes. The near split-decision only further complicated the situation: instead of McCarthy taking on some insurgents, you now had a second viable candidate waiting in the wings.
What Scalise did have, at least in theory, was party loyalty. Historically, the vast majority of party members had voted for the Speaker nominee on the floor, and Scalise could expect a sizable chunk to do the same. Perhaps he might only have to corral a handful of votes. Maybe partisan goodwill and the need to get back to work would even produce a neat and clean first ballot victory on the floor.
It proved not to be true. An array of Freedom Caucus Jordan supporters came out publicly against Scalise. Jordan himself publicly backed Scalise and offered to nominate him, but it came out later that it was extremely weak support, and predicated on Scalise backing Jordan if Scalise failed on the first ballot.
Personal relationships, often so important in party leadership contests, also came to the fore. Former Speaker McCarthy never closely aligned with Scalise or his allies, and gave him nominal support but then made several statements doubting Scalise could secure enough votes. Party loyalty completely in tatters, Scalise withdrew his nomination before they ever went to the floor. And the GOP went back into conference to try again.
This time, Jordan appeared poised to seize the nomination with a sizable vote. Running unopposed, it was possible he might begin with 200+ votes in the conference, and produce an inevitability to both his candidacy and floor victory for the Speakership. But the day of the conference vote, he got a nasty surprise: Rep. Austin Soctt (GA) entered the race just hours before the meeting. Even worse, the little-known Scott got 81 votes to Jordan’s 124, a remarkable protest vote and a shot across the bow at Jordan and his allies. To top it off, when the conference held a subsequent vote asking Members if they would support Jordan on the floor as nominee, 55 voted no.
The forces arrayed against Jordan were varied. Some were embittered Scalise supporters. Others were moderates terrified of Jordan’s extreme past policy positions and coziness with former president Trump, who subsequently endorsed Jordan. Still more were Committee on Armed Services types, like Chairman Mike Rodgers (AL), who were deeply opposed to Jordan’s position on Ukraine aid. Likewise, there were Appropriations Committee members, like Chair Kay Granger (TX), who had little interest in Jordan’s extreme positions on spending bills.
It looked like a daunting slog for Jordan, who had the same structural problem as Scalise: no time, little in the way of resources to offer people, and a set of conference rules that were no longer useful now that party loyalty couldn’t be relied on to bridge the divide between the majority conference vote and the higher-threshold floor vote. True to his nature as a Freedom Caucus member, Jordan didn’t do a lot of bargaining. Instead, he and his allies spent the weekend trying to browbeat moderates and others to get on board, subtly threatening that primary challenges and other pressure would be brought to bear on those who defected on the floor. Even Sean Hannity got involved.
For a time, it looked like it might work. On Monday morning, a host of endorsements for Jordan came flooding in, including some surprising ones, like Armed Services Chair Rogers. But when they went to the floor yesterday afternoon, it wasn’t even close. Twenty Republicans voted against Jordan, more than had voted against McCarthy on the first ballot in January. After the vote, Speaker pro tempore McHenry put the House in recess, the Jordan forces unwilling to risk an immediate second ballot that might produce an increase in dissenters, which would surely be a death blow.
The chart below plots all Republican members on two dimensions: a first-dimension NOMINATE score of their liberal-conservative voting behavior (0 being moderate and 1 being conservative), and the 2023 Partisan Voting Index of their district (with negative numbers indicating a Democratic lean to the district and positive numbers showing the magnitude of Republican lean). Votes for Jordan are shown in blue, votes against him in orange.
As we might expect, Members in the bottom left quadrant—those with more liberal voting records from less Republican districts—were more likely to vote against Jordan. But that is far from a uniform explanation. The next chart shows the same data, but with the Jordan votes removed and the individual dissenters identified.
This chart more clearly reveals that there are actually two general clusters of anti-Jordan votes. The first is the lower left cluster, which includes many of the usual moderate Republican suspects, like frontline swing-district New York members Anthony D’Esposito, Mike Lawler, Nick LaLota, and Andrew Garbarino. And Don Bacon (NE) doesn’t need any excuse to vote against Jim Jordan; his personal brand in his Biden-winning district is built largely around separating himself from the excesses of the GOP. Ditto with many of the others.
But the second cluster of votes in the center of the chart appears to reflect specific policy concerns more than general ideological disagreement, particularly in regard to spending issues. Simpson (ID) and Womack (AR) (along with Diaz-Balart (FL)) are both subcommittee cardinals at House Appropriations, and also both institutionalist types. Granger (TX) is the full-committee chair of Appropriations. Gonzalez (TX) and Ellzey (TX) are also members. None of them (save Gonzalez) are particularly moderate, but all of them care deeply about serious policymaking in the spending realm. Ken Buck may be a single-issue voter here: he is incensed that Jordan refuses to concede Trump lost the 2020 election.
The other issue looming behind Jordan’s loss is party loyalty. Numerous Members, most vocally Giminez (FL), have expressed strong displeasure with both the vacate resolution being used to remove McCarthy, as well as the Jordan faction disregarding loyalty when the conference voted for Scalise, only to demand it when the conference subsequently voted for Jordan.
And this is the upshot to the first roll call vote on Jordan’s Speakership candidacy: a group in the GOP besides the Freedom Caucus decided to play hardball. The longstanding asymmetry and Freedom Caucus monopoly on hardball behavior may be coming to end. That will reassert in some ways the balance of power between the factions; if the moderates and appropriators had simply caved like many people expected them to, Jordan would be Speaker and the Freedom Caucus would have gained its biggest reward yet for their tactics. Instead, they will have to settle for their usual (but substantial) consolation prize: railing against the betrayal of the rest of the party.
So what the hell happens next?
None of this, of course, produces a Speaker, much less a durable procedural coalition that provides for stable House leadership during the rest of the Congress. When will this end? I see three possibilities.
First, Jordan could persevere on the floor, grind down and/or buy-up his opposition, and grab the Speakership. This seems relatively unlikely at this point. When they recessed the floor yesterday, they had the option to come back at any time. They would certainly have come back if Jordan thought he had the votes, and they would probably have come back if they thought they had made substantial improvement and gotten the dissenter count down to single digits. The fact that they decided to recess to today was therefore a very bad sign. There’s every chance that Jordan is completely cooked, and the first vote today—if it even happens—will reveal a growing pile of dissent, as Scalise allies take their revenge and find safety in numbers.
Second, the GOP could go back to the conference and try to find another candidate. There likely won’t be a short supply of people willing to go for it; with the big players having taken their turn and exhaustion perhaps starting to settle in, a less powerful Member with a shorter history might be able to win on simply being non-objectionable. If you’ve ever been in a PTA or HOA or church basement meeting that has gone on too long, you know the feeling. Everyone wants to go home and is willing to settle on decisions and compromises and outcomes that would have been completely impossible an hour earlier. That happens in Congress, too.
Third, some moderates could try to make common cause with Democrats. This is unlikely, but not impossible. There have been numerous state legislatures that have seen such power grabs, in which a small number of majority members essentially switch parties in exchange for being handed-profile positions of power in the new coalition. Could Don Bacon grab four friends and offer to join the Democrats if they made him Speaker and his friends the chairs of Appropriations, Financial Services, Ways and Means, and Energy and Commerce? The Democrats might very well go for it. But the people you are asking to do that are the people who most need the Republican Party and are least likely to buck it. And it makes their life electorally harder, not easier, if they switch parties.
Finally, and perhaps most likely at this point, I think you are going to see a growing movement to empower Speaker pro tempore McHenry for at least a short period of time. There are already Members rumbling about trying to move such a resolution today, and Jordan himself just endorsed the idea (along with a second ballot on him as Speaker) this morning.
There’s a lot of appeal to it, including among Democrats. It would end the self-imposed limbo, allowing the House to get back to work on the Ukraine/Israel aid, as well as the appropriations bills. And it would also allow the new Speaker—whenever they elect one—to avoid the traps of those issues. John Boehner famously “cleaned the barn” for Paul Ryan by making a budget deal with President Obama on his way out the door, so Ryan did not have to deal with it upon first taking office. McCarthy was similarly spared a fight out of the gate when the FY23 appropriations were completed before he took office.
But most importantly, empowering McHenry may allow the GOP to struggle through some (or even all) of the remainder of the 118th Congress without ever having to reconcile their disagreements and produce a durable procedural coalition. With no one able to get 217 votes—not McCarthy, not Scalise, not Jordan, and not anyone on the horizon—making McHenry into a caretaker will allow some policy gains for the party in their fights with the Senate and president Biden. It doesn’t solve anything. The Freedom Caucus will still complain and feel betrayed and maybe even block legislative proposals. And the newly-energized moderates might discover they’re ready to fight more too. But at least they will be partially out of the circular firing-squad of the last two weeks.
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Compare the January speakership fight to the failed Freedom Caucus attempt to block Speaker Boehner from winning a majority in 2015: Boehner lost 25 votes on the floor–more than McCarthy in January–but it wasn’t enough to stop him, since he had a cushion of 29.
A useful reform to the vacating procedures might be to require the resolution vacating the Office of Speaker to itself name the new Speaker. This would likely require a new procedural coalition to form—the minority could easily vote against selecting a new majority Speaker, especially if it was a more radical Member—and it would also prevent the Office from ever actually being vacant.