This article has been updated to reflect news developments.
Now that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has been tossed aside, one possible choice to replace him is Steve Scalise, the Louisiana Republican who once reportedly described himself as “David Duke without the baggage.” Scalise is an archconservative who in 2002 spoke to a white supremacist organization founded by Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The congressman is also, thus far, the closest thing Republicans have to an establishment candidate. He “understands what people in moderate districts need,” Anthony D’Esposito, a Long Island Republican who represents a district that voted for Joe Biden by more than 14 points, told Politico.
Other potential speakers include Jim Jordan, known for his pit bull defense of Donald Trump, as well as for accusations that as an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University, he turned a blind eye to the rampant sexual abuse of student athletes by a team doctor. (Jordan insists he knew nothing of the doctor’s predation.) After flirting with putting himself forward for speaker, Trump has endorsed Jordan, a founder of the famously intransigent House Freedom Caucus who wants to defund federal law enforcement agencies investigating the ex-president.
However the race shakes out, we can be fairly sure that the House will be a mess for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to see how, amid all this turmoil, the chamber passes more Ukraine aid, a red line for some on the right, or keeps the government open when the funding bill that led to McCarthy’s overthrow runs out shortly before Thanksgiving. That is, unless a handful of so-called moderate Republicans decide to show a bit of statesmanship and team up with Democrats to elect a unity candidate.
I understand that this sounds like an absurd fantasy, and I certainly don’t expect it to happen. But it is no more a fantasy, surely, than the idea that Democrats would rescue McCarthy’s speakership in exchange for exactly nothing. As Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman reported shortly before the speaker was voted out, “McCarthy’s allies say they will not negotiate with Democrats. Even as some House Dems privately say they want to help the California Republican.”
Yet plenty of center-right figures are indignant that Democrats declined to keep McCarthy afloat. Democrats, wrote The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis, “failed to do the right thing on behalf of the American people.” Republican members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus are even considering quitting the group en masse because, as a draft letter obtained by Axios put it, their Democratic colleagues refused to “risk the smallest amount of political capital or show the minimal courage necessary” to protect McCarthy. “You could have put the country first by refusing to partake in this fraud,” Mike Lawler, Republican of New York, wrote to the Democratic leader, Hakeem Jeffries, on social media.
If that’s how Lawler defines putting the country first, he now has an opportunity to show us all how it’s done. The congressman told CNN that to earn his vote for speaker, a candidate would need a plan to hold accountable the eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy. But Lawler is never going to get such a plan from a candidate who hopes to be elected with Republican votes alone. The party’s narrow margin in the House means that McCarthy’s right-wing enemies will need to be courted, not threatened.
The only way people like Lawler can marginalize the House’s chaos-loving nihilists is to team up with moderate Democrats. That doesn’t necessarily mean crossing the aisle to vote for Jeffries for speaker. All they’d have to do is cooperate with Democrats to elevate one of the relatively moderate Republicans’ own number. Already, several Democrats have signaled their openness to such a deal; one name that’s been floated is Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick, who has been deemed the House’s most bipartisan member. If a credible centrist emerged with promises to keep the government open and maintain funding for Ukraine, it would be difficult for most Democrats to explain voting against him or her.
Given that Lawler represents a suburban district that voted for Biden by 10 points, his constituents would probably support a bipartisan bargain. It would leave Matt Gaetz, the instigator of the anti-McCarthy coup, with less than nothing to show for his plotting while positioning center-right Republicans as saviors of a broken institution.
Such a scenario is, I realize, extremely far-fetched. But it’s worth asking why there isn’t more of a drumbeat for Republican members of the Problem Solvers Caucus to, well, solve the House’s problem.
In a Thursday Bloomberg column, the übercentrist Michael Bloomberg blames Democrats for not reaching out to Republicans to figure out a way to keep McCarthy in his job. “Their failure to make a peace offering falls heaviest on the party’s moderates, who speak of bipartisanship but, when push comes to shove, don’t practice it,” he wrote. Bloomberg says nothing at all about Republican moderates. But they’re the ones who have the power now, if only they were willing to risk the smallest amount of political capital or show the minimal courage necessary to use it.
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