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  • Matthew Green

Could a bipartisan coalition elect the next Speaker?

As Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) struggles to find the votes he needs to be elected U.S. House Speaker next month, some have suggested that, should McCarthy fail, a handful of Republicans could join Democrats in a bipartisan coalition to vote for an alternative candidate. At least one Republican, Don Bacon of Nebraska, has threatened to “work across the aisle with Democrats” if McCarthy’s most intransigent foes won’t support him.

Could this happen? Theoretically, yes. Because the full House votes for its Speaker, any majority can elect a Speaker, not just the majority party. (By contrast, the Senate majority leader is chosen only by the majority party.)

Though this has never happened in the modern House of Representatives, it has happened in state legislatures. Just a few weeks ago, for example, eight of eleven Republicans and all nine Democrats in the Alaska Senate agreed to jointly choose their chamber’s leaders, shutting out three conservative Republican senators from the selection process.

Such a broad bipartisan coalition is not likely to choose the next Speaker of the U.S. House, but what if most or all Democrats united with a small number of Republicans to pick someone besides McCarthy? This kind of minority party-led coalition – which undermines the “organizational cartel” power of a majority of the majority party to choose chamber leaders – has appeared in over a dozen states since the mid-1970s, including chambers in California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

In a recent paper, I examined these coalitions in state legislatures and the conditions under which they are more likely to form. My findings suggest that a coalition of House Democrats and a minority of House Republicans is very unlikely to elect the next Speaker. And even if it did, that Speaker would have a tough time governing.

Two conditions increase the likelihood that a cross-party coalition rejects the majority party’s nominee for Speaker and selects someone else instead. The first is a small margin separating the two parties. Smaller margins mean that fewer lawmakers (sometimes as little as one) need cross party lines to pick a different leader.

That is certainly the case in the U.S. House, where Republicans will likely have 222 seats next year, just four more than a minimal majority. All else equal, that small majority results in a 20% probability of a cross-party coalition choosing the next Speaker – not much, but much higher than if Republicans had, say, 240 seats (resulting in the probability of a cross-party coalition of under 8%).

The other condition is if the office of Speaker has fewer formal powers. The logic here is that weaker speakerships are less important to majority parties, so they are more willing to allow defections in choosing who the Speaker will be.

That is not the situation in the House, where the Speaker has fairly substantial influence over the legislative agenda and committee assignments. With such high stakes over who the next Speaker is, Republicans are very unlikely to tolerate anyone from their ranks working with Democrats to pick someone other than McCarthy. (McCarthy himself has warned his colleagues that, if his party colleagues don’t vote for him on the floor, “Democrats can end up picking who the speaker is.”)

So the odds that some Republicans and most Democrats elect an alternative to McCarthy are low. Even if it did happen, that person would not have an easy time governing.

For one thing, Republicans would almost certainly try to remove the new Speaker by convincing its wayward members to return to the fold. As soon as they did, they would immediately offer a motion to vacate the chair, which under the current rules of the House (Rule IX, clause 2(a)(3)) is privileged if offered by a party. Passing the resolution would oust the incumbent Speaker, and Republicans would then vote as a bloc for a different, more amenable Speaker.

Even if that gambit didn’t work, Republicans could make life hard for the new Speaker by refusing to cooperate with him or her on legislative business. The Speaker would then have to rely on the same majority that supported him or her in office to pass bills and amendments. Sustaining a (likely small) bipartisan majority on vote after vote would be a real challenge.

Finally, conservative Republicans might resort to more aggressive tactics to hinder the Speaker, especially if that Speaker felt the need to move the agenda further to the left to accommodate the coalition that brought him or her to office. I would expect the Freedom Caucus in particular to offer lots of dilatory motions to slow things down and fire up conservative voters, perhaps with the support of disillusioned Republicans who ordinarily would want nothing to do with the group. It’s worth noting that one reason that some Texas House Republicans decided to form their own Freedom Caucus organization in 2017 was that conservatives had grown tired of the moderation of GOP Speaker Joe Straus, who himself had first gotten elected Speaker in 2009 with the help of Democrats.

None of this means that McCarthy is a shoo-in to be the next Speaker. Defections on floor votes for Speaker have become the norm, and if no one can get a majority, we could see multiple ballots (something that hasn’t happened since 1923). If McCarthy can’t get an absolute floor majority after several rounds of balloting, Republicans might coalesce around someone else, like Steve Scalise (R-LA), to be Speaker. But whether it’s McCarthy, Scalise, or someone else, the next Speaker is unlikely to have been chosen with the votes of Democrats.

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