Matt McDaniel

7 minute read

Yesterday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy decided to pull his name out of contention for Speaker of the House. The resulting scramble for the rest of the afternoon is the political equivalent to the end of a precarious game of Jenga.

Here’s the background on the issue: in the 2014 elections, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary in a major upset that sent shockwaves through Washington. Cantor was, by most people’s expectation, the next Speaker of the House. Current Speaker John Boehner, long a lightning rod for conservative criticism, was expected to pass the torch to Cantor and go out on a high note with impressive pickups for the GOP in the House in the general election. On the one hand, the House Republican majority did increase, unfortunately for Boehner, there was no Cantor to take over. So, Boehner did what he thought was right under the circumstances: he decided to run for Speaker again.

The way the election of a Speaker of the House works is that someone needs to get 50%+1 of the all the members of the House. There are 435 seats in the House (there is one vacancy at the moment). To be elected Speaker, a candidate must receive 218 votes. There are currently 246 Republicans in the House and 188 Democrats. This should be an easy race for the Republicans to win, right? Well, normally. Unfortunately (or, fortunately depending on your brand of politics), there are between 25 and 40 members of the “House Freedom Caucus.” This loosely affiliated group of Republicans has decided that, for too long, the leadership of moderates and insiders has been causing conservative governance and Constitutional principles to be held down. With each election following the “Tea Party” boom in 2010, the number of like-minded representatives has grown along with the total number of Republicans in the House.

The Freedom Caucus, on several important votes, decided to dig in its heels and prevent the passage of certain legislation without Democrat support. As you can see by the math, if the Republicans lose 40 votes on a piece of legislation, they would not have the 218 votes necessary to get their way on a strictly party-line vote. Some have seen this as an absolute betrayal of the Party and giving the Democrats the upper hand despite the Republican majority (the logic goes like this: if the Freedom Caucus says no, the Republican leadership would then need several Democrats to break away from their Party to advance the legislation). On the other hand, some, especially many of the vocal conservative voices in the country, are standing with the Freedom Caucus who these voices see as trying to prevent the “business as usual” model of governance.

Most recently, and what, arguably, led to the current situation, the Freedom Caucus decided that it would not allow a continuing resolution (basically, a short-term bill to keep the government funded) to pass unless language was added that would strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood. In the wake of a controversy generated by Planned Parenthood executives casually discussing the business of abortion, the Freedom Caucus believed that it had the moral duty to prevent the group from receiving any money. The problem with that strategy was, principally, it could not get past the 60-vote cloture threshold in the Senate, and, if it did, it would certainly be vetoed by the President. The consequence would have been that the government would have had its second shutdown in three years. Some on the right were willing to make their stand on the issue, but, after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell effectively silenced Ted Cruz, the sole voice standing against a “clean” continuing resolution in the Senate, and forced the bill through, it was left to the House to either pass the Senate version or send the government back into a shutdown.

It was at this same time when Speaker of the House John Boehner decided to announce, abruptly, that he would be resigning both the Speakership and his seat in Congress at the end of October. Ostensibly this move was made because the more-conservative members of the House had expressed a lack of confidence in Speaker Boehner. Though Boehner looked sure to win the first outright challenge to the Speakership, it likely appeared clear to Boehner that his ability to govern in the House was severely reduced.

The continuing resolution passed while a scramble ensued to see who was going to take over for the outgoing Speaker. The vast majority (some projections were thinking almost 200) of the GOP caucus was united behind the new-number-two in the GOP Leadership: California Representative Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy had assumed the post after Cantor’s loss and was widely regarded as a competent, younger, moderate-to-conservative, successor to John Boehner. Unfortunately, 200 votes does not the Speaker make.

In the interim between Boehner’s announcement and what many in the Party hoped would be a smooth transition to McCarthy, two challengers arose within the Party to oppose the heir-apparent. The first, fairly predictably, came from the Freedom Caucus in the person of Representative Daniel Webster from Florida. Webster had gotten some support in the last vote on Boehner’s leadership earlier this year and was seen as a titular challenger from the right to McCarthy’s rise. The second challenger to McCarthy was Representative Jason Chaffetz from Utah who had been in the news recently when the Director of the Secret Service made waves by contemplating disclosing secret, embarrassing, information about Chaffetz to the press.

Unfortunately for McCarthy, it seemed like the pressure of the potential position, and the reality that he would be facing many of the same problems that confronted John Boehner caught up to the Majority Leader when it became clear there would be no unanimity in the Republican vote. Consequently, McCarthy decided that he was not the man for the job and abruptly quit the race. A good take on some of the machinations behind the scenes can be found over at Politico.

So where does this leave the Party now? First, most eyes have come to rest on former Republican Vice Presidential nominee Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan. Ryan has repeatedly denied that he has any ambitions to the Speaker’s gavel (why would he after what Boehner has gone through?), but most internal polls show that Ryan would likely get near-unanimous support from every Republican in the House. Ryan, the policy-minded fiscal reformer is in charge of the eminently powerful Ways and Means Committee. Though being Speaker would certainly be a promotion, it would diminish Ryan’s ability to see his goals made manifest in budgeting reform. Though this might sound dull and arcane, Ryan sees real reform of the way government does business to be a stepping stone towards increasing economic prosperity.

Moments after McCarthy made his stunning announcement, Ryan quickly said that he was not seeking the Speakership. However, there are powerful forces behind the scenes that are looking to Ryan to function as a unity candidate. If we are betting, smart money says Ryan reconsiders.

However, without Ryan, the race for the gavel is wide-open. Representative Scalise, who had been in the running for McCarthy’s job as Majority Leader withdrew when McCarthy decided to stay in that post. Scalise intends to remain as Majority Whip. Certainly Chaffetz and Webster remain in the race, but, since the Freedom Caucus has claimed yet another Speaker, neither likely has sufficient good will to get a majority. Other names being thrown around include Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, who is in the GOP leadership and decided to play ball during the Boehner reshuffling and not make an ambitious play for any top spot. Most any of the chairmen of the myriad of House Committees (Kline on Education, Thornberry on Armed Services, Miller on Administration were suggested by Politico) could think about taking on a race for the top spot. The reality is, without Ryan, the race for the gavel would be a drawn-out affair.

Speaker Boehner has decided to retain the gavel until the Party can sort out its eventual replacement. Most are hoping that this can happen well-in-advance of the 2016 campaign kicking into high gear.