The Republicans finally received a majority in the House of Representatives, getting 218 seats to the 211 for the Democrats in the 435 member body, with six races still to be called. In the outgoing body, they had 213 seats. Republican minority leader McCarthy had predicted that his party could pick up at least 60 seats but they fell far short.
So what can we expect for the next two years now that Republicans control the House? We can for sure expect a lot of symbolic actions and grandstanding. Less certain is what legislation they will actually get through. Anything that Democrats do not like could be blocked in the Senate where the Democrats have retained control and even vetoed by the president if necessary.
The first question is who Congress will elect as Speaker. This is an important position since “The Speaker is simultaneously the House’s presiding officer, party leader, and the institution’s administrative head, among other duties.” They are the person controlling the agenda that decides what legislation is brought to the House floor for debate and voting. So come January 3rd when the new Congress takes office, any Democratic agenda items are pretty much dead, which means that they have about three weeks to do whatever they think they must do.
Minority leader Kevin McCarthy is most likely to be elected to that position and he has won his party’s nomination for the position but only by a margin of 188-31, with the dissenters mostly coming from the so-called Freedom Caucus that consists of the most extreme members of the party. They voted for Andy Biggs. The problem for him is that to be elected Speaker, that person has to get a majority of those voting and present in the House on the day of the vote, which means 218 votes if all are in attendance. He cannot afford many defections.
So what happens if no one gets the majority? There are two precedents, each of which resulted in a long delay before it was settled.
In two instances the House agreed to choose and subsequently did choose a Speaker by a plurality of votes but confirmed the choice by majority vote. In 1849 the House had been in session 19 days without being able to elect a Speaker, no candidate having received a majority of the votes cast. The voting was viva voce, each Member responding to the call of the roll by naming the candidate for whom he voted. Finally, after the fifty-ninth ballot, the House adopted a resolution declaring that a Speaker could be elected by a plurality. In 1856 the House again struggled over the election of a Speaker. Ballots numbering 129 had been taken without any candidate receiving a majority of the votes cast. The House then adopted a resolution permitting the election to be decided by a plurality. On both of these occasions, the House ratified the plurality election by a majority vote.
If that happens again, both parties will have to come to some agreement that whoever wins a plurality will then get confirmed by a majority vote, just so that they can move on. But in this fractured political climate, will that happen? It seems like Republicans will have to find a consensus candidate if McCarthy is unable to unify the party around his candidacy. So while McCarthy is going to be his party’s nominee, at least initially, his election as Speaker is by no means a sure thing. McCarthy tried once before in 2015 to be the Speaker but the same Freedom Caucus refused to back him and the party instead settled on Paul Ryan. So he has reason to not take his election for granted.
The problem for McCarthy is that he is seen as a weak person who can be easily pressured, unlike in the Senate where Republican leader Mitch McConnell keeps a firm grip on his party. Weak people are not trusted to carry out their commitments. For example, during and immediately after the events of January 6th, he was harshly critical of Trump for jeopardizing the lives of congresspeople but then quickly went and groveled to him at Mar-a-Lago.
There have been reports that Republicans have tried to coax one of the most conservative Democrats Henry Cuellar to switch parties but he said that he turned them down.
Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) on Tuesday revealed more details about the GOP effort to have him jump parties, saying a handful of Republicans — including a sitting member of Congress — were part of the pressure campaign to have him join the GOP following his easy victory in last week’s midterm elections.
They did not offer him anything specific, such as a committee chairmanship, Cuellar said, but instead extended him an open-ended enticement.
“They just said, ‘Name your price,’” Cuellar told reporters in the Capitol.
His response was simple. “No, thank you,” he said.
This reeks of desperation.
If McCarthy does manage to become Speaker, he will be faced with demands and even ultimatums by the many crazies in his party who are more interested in grandstanding and making political points than in governing. Remember that there are about 150 election deniers in the Republican caucus. These people despise government and are quite willing to shut everything down in order to get what they want. They will demand plum committees and chair positions so that they can push agendas that garner media attention and appeal to the base even at the risk of alienating the general public. They are sure to launch an impeachment of Joe Biden because … well, just because they can. They will also investigate Biden’s son Hunter, the Justice Department, and anyone or anything that they think has worked against Trump. They will oppose anything that can be interpreted as giving Biden and the Democrats a ‘win’.
Then there will be the issue of raising the debt ceiling next year, which many Republicans extremists oppose even though failing to do so will send the country into default. That issue is ideal for brinkmanship since the consequences of not raising it are so serious. There is also the budget and certain spending bills that must pass to keep the government running. All those issues will be highly susceptible to grandstanding. McCarthy does not seem to have the political skills to maneuver through that thicket. In addition to placating these crazies, he also has to keep in line those Republicans who are not nuts and do not have the stomach to go that far and may choose to vote with Democrats on key issues.
As for the Democrats, 82-year old Nancy Pelosi has said that she will not seek to become the leader of the party in the next congress saying that it is time for a new generation of younger leaders to emerge in their House party leadership. The Democratic majority leader Steny Hoyer, aged 83, is also leaving his leadership post. The third ranking person is the whip Jim Clyburn, aged 82, who has not made any announcement as yet.
Interestingly, the Speaker (although second in line of succession to the presidency, after the vice-president) does not have to be a member of the House, though in practice all of them have been in the past. So in theory, the House could elect some weirdo to be speaker and if by some chance the president and vice-president died or had to vacate their positions, the weirdo could become president.
Talking of possible weirdos in that role, the possibility of Trump as the Speaker was raised Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin.
Raskin envisioned a wild scenario in which extremist House Republicans loyal to Trump “might just vote” for the former president to become speaker of the House (provided the GOP wins a 218 majority when all results are counted).
“We know that the hard-right Freedom Caucus people are in search of another candidate” for House speaker, Raskin told Margaret Brennan.
“One potential candidate whose name has been floated is Donald Trump himself because the speaker of the House does not have to be a member of the House,” he continued. “And they are talking about putting Trump right there.”
They “talk about it repeatedly,” Raskin noted. “If Trump decided he wanted to do it, it would pose a profound problem for their party because they refuse to do the right thing.”
CBS News has projected that at least 155 Republican election deniers will win their House seats, and nine will fill Senate positions, Brennan noted.
I think Raskin was trolling the Republicans. He suggested this before Trump announced his run for the presidency and I am sure that he was seeking to panic Republicans because it is the kind of thing that might have appealed to Trump, and if he had declared an interest in the position, then there was no way that Republicans could refuse him. Of course, Trump as Speaker would be chaotic because the post requires a knowledge of congressional minutiae and someone who can deal with detail and bureaucratic matters, all qualities that he lacks.
There have been other wild speculative scenarios that have been floated, such as that, since no Republican will ever vote for Pelosi, the Democrats might nominate Republican Liz Cheney, thinking that she may win over some Republican votes, even though many Republicans hate her for being such a devastating critic of Donald Trump and Republicans during the congressional hearings into the events surrounding January 6th. But that is also unlikely to happen.
But we live in wild and crazy times where nothing can be ruled out.