In hyper-partisan times, effort to replace Boehner gets curiouser and curiouser

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Speaker John Boehner speaking during a September news conference.

The House of Representatives will need a new speaker to replace the retiring John Boehner. Here is the entire text of the U.S. Constitution as it relates to how the choice should be made:

“The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker.”

That’s it. Nothing about how to do it, just chuse one.

But the system is well established by House rules and past practice. The House members of the majority party will meet among themselves, vote until someone is “nominated” for speaker with the support of a majority of the caucus. Then at a subsequent meeting of the full House, the majority party will close ranks behind their nominee and that person will become speaker by majority vote. (Again, the Constitution doesn’t specify that a majority is needed, but House rules do.)

That’s how it works in normal times. But it appears that these are not quite such normal times.

It shouldn’t really be much of a race. At least two candidates are running for speaker, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah. Every story on the subject indicates that a large majority of House Republicans will vote for McCarthy for the job.

(The Repubs actually have a rule providing that after each ballot, the lowest ranking candidate is dropped from the next ballot, but McCarthy is expected to get the majority on the first ballot. So he will be the nominee of his party as the selection process moves from the closed caucus room — and that starts Thursday — to the House floor, currently scheduled for Oct. 29.)

But you will also see a lot of stories indicating that 40 or 50 of the most extreme anti-government Republicans (last week I dubbed them the “barn burners”) will not support McCarthy on the House floor (and apparently there is no party rule requiring that they do so). And, although the Repubs currently hold a substantial 247-188 majority in the House, if you subtract 40 or 50 from their votes, the remainder is not enough to constitute a majority of the full House. The 188 House Dems will presumably vote for their leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, but she cannot get the majority without Republican votes and there is no realistic scenario in which that comes about.

Process and possibilities

Most of the stories don’t say much about what happens next, so I asked Congress expert (and Minnesota native) Norm Ornstein to walk me through the process and the possible outcomes.

Assuming we get through the first House floor ballot, and no one is elected, it’s possible that McCarthy meets with the dissidents and provides them with some kinds of assurances about what he will and won’t do and he wins over their support. This might weaken McCarthy and strengthen the barn burners, but it will make him speaker, perhaps on the second ballot and for as long as he keeps the barn burners happy.

(You should recall how the Boehner resignation came about. The barn burners were preparing to make what is called a “motion to vacate the chair.” That’s fancy talk for a new vote on whether the speaker has the support of the majority of the House. If on such a motion the speaker fails to get a majority, it can trigger a whole new process to find a speaker who does have majority support. But that’s the next chapter, and presumes that McCarthy has been chosen as speaker, then alienates enough barn burners to bring him down.)

Another possibility, Ornstein said, is that the Repubs go back into their own caucus and redo the nominating process. Having demonstrated that McCarthy cannot command a majority in the full House, the caucus could try Chaffetz or turn to someone else who perhaps could cobble together 218 votes from the 247-member Republican caucus.

There is another possibility, Ornstein mentioned. McCarthy could have discussions with the Democrats. They could easily make him speaker by voting for him (and it wouldn’t take very many Dem votes, assuming McCarthy had about 200 votes from the Repub side). But as a technical matter, Ornstein said, they probably wouldn’t do it that way. The speaker, by rule, must be chosen by a majority of those voting in the leadership election. If a certain number of Dems agree to simply not vote at all, they would reduce the magic “majority of those those voting” number to the number of McCarthy’s supporters. Not that this would fool anyone, but Ornstein said this is how such a deal probably be worked out.

But why would the Dems do such a thing? Obviously, the deal to provide those abstentions would be tied to some negotiations over what McCarthy would and wouldn’t do as speaker. This outcome seems a longshot at best. McCarthy couldn’t attract Republican votes if he gave too many concessions to the Dems. Perhaps the concessions would be around the fundamental question that separates the barn burners from most of the rest of the House, namely the advisability or inadvisability of shutting down the government as a bargaining tool.

A step to responsible government?

When I think of this last possibility, acknowledging how unlikely it is, it strikes me as a step back toward the pre-Gingrich norm that shutting down the government or refusing to raise the debt limit are not responsible tools for gaining leverage.

As regular Black Ink readers know, I’m very struck by the conflict between the peculiar structure of our government system and the current insistence of some members of Congress in getting what they want. Our system has so many choke points that — except in rare moments of supermajority control by one party all the major institutions — it really can’t function properly without compromise across partisan and ideological lines, which means, as the song says, that you can’t always get what you want. And this belief of mine was reinforced by the important  analysis by Ornstein and Tom Mann in their 2012 book “It’s Even Worse than it Looks,” subtitled “How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.”

Ornstein made one other point before he begged leave to get off the phone. Boehner made some comments about “cleaning up the barn” before he turned the gavel over to the next speaker. This metaphor certainly meant that Boehner — who had come to the conclusion that shutting down the government or constantly threatening to do so was neither a responsible nor politically popular way to govern — hoped to leave behind a situation in Washington in which most of the easy piles of gridlock/shutdown opportunities had been swept out of the barn for as long as possible. If Boehner succeeds, Ornstein said, it will make a big difference in the chances of the next speaker succeeding for at least a year or more.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/07/2015 - 09:48 am.

    From a tactical perspective

    It might make a lot of sense for some democrats to help get McCarthy in. Such a move would send powerful signal to the barn burners that their camp could be neutralized by bipartisan action. And that demonstration could even play well for the republicans who are clearly trying to establish some kind of credentials as responsible governors. But really, I think the republicans are headed for an inescapable crash after which they’ll just have to try to recover.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/07/2015 - 01:32 pm.

      What makes you think McCarthy will be a semi-bipartisan Speaker of the House?

      His comments to Sean Hannity on the reduction of Hillary Clinton through the Benghazi committee activities were made as a boast to show how well the Republicans could defeat and diminish Democratic goals through the actions of a Republican Congress led by someone like him. He also made a vow to be on the Sean Hannity show every month while he was Speaker (Boehner was never on the show, let alone as a regular guest).

      Doesn’t sound like a new day of bipartisanship to me.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/07/2015 - 01:16 pm.


    …that diminishes the influence of the barn-burners would be OK with me, not that anyone much cares whether I approve or not. I’m also inclined to agree with Paul Udstrand that, lacking some semblance of common sense on the part of said barn-burners, we may be about to witness the end of the Republican Party as I’ve known it, even with the changes it’s undergone over the past generation and more, and the birth of a (or perhaps multiple) new and different party. I lean toward the multiple-replacement-party idea myself. The barn-burners would form their own, ultimately futile organization, while mainstream Republicans, without the albatross of the barn-burners hanging around their collective necks, might – not certainly, but might – be able to actually take part in government once again beyond simply saying “no.”

  3. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 10/07/2015 - 02:16 pm.


    Given McCarthy’s comments about how the Benghazi committee was used to take down Hillary Clinton, members of the Democratic caucus maybe not disposed towards assisting someone who’s tried to damage the party so deeply.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/07/2015 - 03:21 pm.


    An already weakened McCarthy, couldn’t possibly be a viable leader of the House of Representatives if he needed Democratic votes under any circumstances to win election. What I would expect to happen if he made any move in that direction is that he would lose every single Republican vote, or at least enough to deny him election.

    The alternative to a candidate selected by the Republican caucus would be some sort of caretaker speaker, one who is seen as largely nonpartisan by both parties. But really, that would be a visible and enduring symbol of Republican legislative dysfunction, and would hardly present the image they would want going forward in an election year.

    The Republicans are faced with the basic contradiction they have always sought to finesse, the fact that despite being an anti government party, winning elections means that at some point you have govern.

  5. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/07/2015 - 04:00 pm.

    How about

    A really radical approach of selecting someone who occasionally visits the middle of the political spectrum as a right / left compromise. Chris Smith of New Jersey, Ilena Ros-Lehtinen of FL or our own Eric Paulsen? More candidates here:

    Introspection is not a strong point for any of these folks; but, if that 7% approval rating means anything maybe a radical change of governing from the middle could break out.

  6. Submitted by Bill Willy on 10/07/2015 - 08:41 pm.

    Pretty good barn burner profile

    “Meet the Right-Wing Rebels Who Overthrew John Boehner

    “The House Freedom Caucus is an ideological and uncompromising band of anti-government radicals. And they’re just getting started

    “Composed of nearly 40 of the most committed ideologues in the House, the Freedom Caucus has a simple mission: to get GOP leadership to deliver on the extreme, anti-government and social-conservative rhetoric that nearly all Republicans spout to get elected.”

    [Reminds me of what Paul Udstrand says about the incoherence that results from trying to “governor by ideology,” and the current majority in the MN House.]

    “Freedom Caucus members define themselves less in opposition to Democrats than to ‘establishment’ Republicans — politicians they see as quick to betray their voters, and subservient to K Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents big business in Washington.”

    Long but interesting piece that provides great insight into who these people are, their backgrounds, the districts they represent, what they’re up to, and just how crazy (or sane, I guess, depending on your perspective) they seem to be.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/07/2015 - 09:25 pm.


    Where does a “we the people in order to form a more perfect union” fit into the equation?

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 10/08/2015 - 09:23 am.

      We the People

      As we MP commenters know, “we the people” are a very very diverse group with very very different values, beliefs, opinions, etc. I wonder if us commenters would do any better if we were in their place?

      Imagine trying to get our far Lefters and far Righters to agree on taxes, spending, regulatory, foreign policy, social policy, etc. Just thinking about it makes me smile… 🙂

Leave a Reply