Yikes. With Kevin McCarthy’s last-minute exit from the contest for speaker, there is no obvious next-in-line. House Freedom Caucus members – and remember the membership list is a secret – keep threatening to vote against their own party’s choice on the House floor. At least one report says McCarthy didn’t think he had 218 votes to win.
And this isn’t happening a few weeks after a November election, with plenty of time before a new Congress begins in January. We’re in the middle of a congressional session, with serious deadlines – the debt limit, funding to keep the government running, and more – approaching rapidly. If Republicans can’t decide on their own leadership, how are they going to pass anything at all, let alone bills that require tough votes?
On the one hand, we have seen a version of this story before. When Newt Gingrich was ousted after the 1998 elections (technically he quit, but only because he knew what was coming), Republicans chose Bob Livingston to replace him – only to have Livingston shock everyone by admitting an affair and resigning from Congress. Chaos? Sure seemed like it, but Republicans quickly replaced Livingston with Denny Hastert, and stability was rapidly restored.
On the other hand, back in 1998, no one even thought about taking the fight for speaker to the House floor. The vote there has been a formality for decades. First, the majority party votes internally to choose a candidate. Then everyone in the party votes for its candidate in the floor vote (and therefore the majority party always has the votes to elect its leader as speaker). Now, however, a radical faction may prevent its own party from having a floor majority. If that happens, we really do get chaos.
There’s even speculation from one Republican member about a coalition with Democrats for speaker. This seems unlikely, but if Republicans don’t have a majority – if the House Freedom Caucus members basically act as a separate party and prevents the regular Republicans from having 218 votes – then all bets are off, and what was just wild speculation all of a sudden become plausible.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.