The 247 Republican members of the House will convene behind closed doors today to select a replacement for John Boehner. Will conservatives prevent Kevin McCarthy from earning the 218 votes he needs to become the next House Speaker?
Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, another candidate for Speaker, makes no assumption that he (or anyone) can defeat McCarthy. However, Chaffetz believes that conservatives may prevent McCarthy from earning the 218 votes he needs to formally win the election.
In that scenario, there are at least 30 members within the Freedom Caucus who will likely oppose McCarthy during October 29th’s floor vote. The House of Representatives will be deadlocked, paralyzed until they can find a Speaker that most voting members support.
“We’ve got to figure out how to get to 218 before we get to the floor. Because otherwise we could literally be doing this through the fall,” says Florida Rep. and McCarthy ally Tom Rooney.
Back in the 19th century, it took almost two months for the House to elect a leader. But it hasn’t taken more than one ballot to agree on a Speaker since 1923, when it took nine. This year, the House simply doesn’t have the time. Congress must raise the debt limit in order to avoid what could be the first-ever default within one week of the scheduled Speaker election. Furthermore, there will be a government shutdown unless Congress passes a spending bill before December 11th.
“All that could be put on the back-burner because we can’t elect a Speaker,” says Rooney. It’s unlikely, but not impossible. “Don’t think it can’t happen. Whenever I think of what’s the worst-case scenario that can happen with this Congress, it’s not altogether wrong all the time. Just try us.”
Did John Boehner consider this nightmare scenario when he decided to step down? Possibly. When Boehner announced his resignation, he specified that it would begin on October 30th. This week, he scheduled the floor vote to be one day before that day. This allows for a last-minute change if the House fails to elect a Speaker. According to Tom Cole of the Rules Committee, Boehner is willing to stay on until a replacement is found.
This parliamentary game of chess reflects the chasm within the House and gives Chaffetz reason to hope. Chaffetz is offering himself as a solution if McCarthy can’t get those 218 votes. But McCarthy’s allies insist that Chaffetz won’t get the position even if members of the Freedom Caucus prevent McCarthy from being elected.
“If Jason thinks this is going to make him Speaker, I think he’s really miscalculated the feeling of the caucus,” says McCarthy fan and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger.
Until recently, McCarthy supporters believed him to be a shoo-in for the position. But many Republicans will never forgive McCarthy for suggesting the Benghazi Committee was a Republican scheme to take down Hillary Clinton. And despite what McCarthy is saying now, Clinton latched on to his comments and used them in her first campaign commercial.
McCarthy’s supporters are beyond frustrated. “The guy’s been working his ass off for 10 years to be a leader in our party, helping candidates get elected, hosting dinners, and everything under the sun,” says Rooney. “Everybody’s allowed to have a slip of the tongue once in a while.”
Meanwhile, the Freedom Caucus remains realistic. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” says Mick Mulvaney, one of the group’s leaders, “We do not have enough votes to get one of our people elected. We have enough votes to influence the outcome. That’s fair.”
When asked if the Freedom Caucus would agree to support McCarthy in a floor vote if he won today’s election, Mulvaney replied, “What are they offering in exchange?” The Freedom Caucus aims to have its members selected for spaces on the Steering Committee (a group that assigns lawmakers to other committees).
Tuesday evening, the Freedom Caucus interviewed McCarthy, Chaffetz, and Florida Rep. Daniel Webster. According to Mulvaney, they want to make an agreement with the new Speaker before the end of the month. “There’s no reason to go to the floor with this,” says Mulvaney. “There’s no reason to embarrass anybody in public.”
This threat may give hope to Chaffetz, but for McCarthy and his supporters it’s a sure sign of trouble.