You’ll have to bear with me a bit before I get to why you should pay attention to what just happened in the Alaska state Senate. Let’s just say that it might serve as an interesting model for settling some chaos that might soon erupt in the U.S. House of Representatives.
One of the biggest mysteries in Washington DC right now is whether or not California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy will be the next Speaker of the House. As the Minority Leader in the current 117th Congress, it stands to reason that he’d remain the top House Republican in the 118th Congress which begins on January 3, 2022. But there is a real question about whether he has enough support from within his own caucus to make it happen.
Becoming Speaker is a two-step process, at a minimum. First, the majority party (the Republicans in the next Congress) has an internal election. This occurred on November 15 and McCarthy got the most votes (188-31). That means McCarthy will be his party’s first-ballot candidate for Speaker. But he has to be concerned that 31 members went with someone else. That’s because the Democrats will get to participate in the January election for Speaker when an absolute majority of 218 (out of 435) votes is required for victory.
The secret-ballot House Republican Conference vote is just the first step for McCarthy to take hold of the gavel. He must win a majority in a public vote on the House floor — at least 218 votes, assuming a fully sworn-in House — on the first day of the next Congress on Jan. 3.
It looks like (pending a couple recounts) the Republicans will have 222 or 223 votes and the Democrats 212 or 213, so McCarthy can’t afford many defections or he won’t secure a majority and the vote for Speaker will go to a second ballot, and maybe a third, fourth, and so on.
The biggest threat to McCarthy is coming from the far right, and Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Ralph Norman of South Carolina are already firm ‘no to McCarthy’ votes. That already puts the outcome of the contest on a razor’s edge. Yet, if McCarthy getting the gavel in in question, it’s doubtful that the House GOP caucus would rally around a far right alternative. They are some Republican moderates, believe it or not, and their majority is built on several seats they won in New York in districts that voted for Joe Biden. If McCarthy fails, it could signal a larger problem where the Republicans cannot coalesce around anyone at all.
The last time the election for Speaker wasn’t settled on the first ballot was in 1923, although it was a regular occurrence before the Civil War.
There have only been 14 instances in congressional history where it took more than two ballots for a nominee to get a majority. The first 13 happened before the Civil War.
We may see the fifteenth instance in January, and that’s where the recent news from Alaska comes in.
Seventeen of Alaska’s 20 state senators and senator-elects have banded together to form a bipartisan majority coalition that members promise will be moderate and consensus-focused.
Read that carefully. With only 20 members, the Alaska Senate is the smallest state legislative body in the country, and it’s now split between 17 majority and 3 minority members. The actual partisan split of the Senate is 13 Republicans, 6 Democrats, and one Democrat (Lyman Hoffman) who traditionally caucuses with Republicans. But the majority caucus is made up 10 Republicans, and all seven Democrats, with 3 hard right Republicans left in the minority. The leadership and committee chairs are also split between Republicans and Democrats.
Cathy Giessel, a Republican from South Anchorage, will be the majority leader; Sen. Bill Wielechowski, a Democrat from East Anchorage, will be chairman of the Rules Committee, which determines with the president which bills are voted upon…The powerful budget-writing Finance Committee will have three co-chairs, he said: Republican Sen. Bert Stedman of Sitka, overseeing the operating budget; Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman of Bethel, handling the capital budget; and Democratic Sen. Donny Olson of Golovin, managing other bills.
The situation with the Alaska Senate isn’t unprecedented, as it also was “led by a bipartisan caucus from 2007 to 2012.” The reason the majority of Republican senators are willing to cede power to Democrats is that it’s impossible to govern the state if they have to rely only on their own party’s votes.
In other ways, the new majority formalizes what had been a de facto coalition in recent years comprising Senate Democrats and the more moderate Republicans. That experience, [Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary] Stevens said, is evidence in favor of a bipartisan majority over an all-Republican majority. Over the past four years, these senators have opposed unplanned draws from the Alaska Permanent Fund, as well as the deep cuts to government services that Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed in 2019.
“I think this is a recognition of the reality of the last four years. We have not been able to get several of our senators to support the budget. We’ve had to go around them and bring the Democrats in in order to pass the budget,” he said.
The corollary on the national scale is the problem mainstream House Republican leadership has had getting their own caucuses to authorize increases in the debt ceiling or the necessary appropriations bills that prevent government shutdowns. Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan both came to grief over these divides within their party, and the next Republican Speaker will have the same problem on steroids because of a smaller majority with more radical members.
One solution is for a small bloc of Republican moderates to band together with the Democrats to form a power-sharing bipartisan governing majority. But is this possible and how might it happen?
I’ll admit that such an arrangement is hard to picture, but it’s not impossible. The starting point is McCarthy failing to secure the Speaker’s gavel on the first ballot. This happened in 1855-56 and it ultimately took 133 ballots for the House to settle on a leader. This is what can happen when there are irreconcilable differences within a party, and that could be the case here between vulnerable GOP members serving in blue districts and hard right GOP members who insist on a Speaker who will commit to their unreasonable demands, including to hold the country’s credit hostage risking a global economic depression.
Freedom Caucus members are making demands that could ultimately be fatal to any hope of Republican success in the House. They want rules changes that, among other things, would weaken the speakership by making bipartisan coalitions harder to build, allowing only bills supported by a majority of the G.O.P. to come to the floor. Such a rule would constrain the speaker’s agenda-setting power and make it extremely hard to pass much-needed legislation unpopular with Republicans, like raising the debt ceiling.
If enough Freedom Caucus members stick to these demands, we really could see ballot after ballot that produces no majority winner. Of course, this type of scenario can be anticipated and planned for, and if the Democrats are willing to enter into a power-sharing agreement they might eventually find enough Republican moderates to strike a deal.
What might the deal look like?
I think it would look a lot like the Alaska Senate. There would be a Republican Speaker and Republicans would chair key committees. A Republican could run the Rules Committee to keep the Democratic majority from running roughshod over the more numerous Republicans. A Republican could run the Budget Committee for the same reason. The Appropriations subcommittees could be divided up, giving the moderate Republicans still more say over how money is spent. Perhaps some powerful committees, like Ways & Means, would have co-chairs from each party. Yet, the Democrats would make up the vast majority of the majority coalition and this would be reflected in their overall dominance of committee seats and chairs, and also necessitate that they hold the bulk of leadership positions below the Speaker. The agenda would be limited by prior agreement, and possibly focus on a just a few critical issues, like raising the debt ceiling, avoiding government shutdowns, and maintaining support for Ukraine.
My advice is that people start working on this kind of deal now rather than trying to put it together on the fly during endless failed votes for Speaker in January.
Ironically, the credible possibility of such a coalition might help McCarthy secure victory on the first ballot. The Freedom Caucus doesn’t want to lose its chance chair committees and conduct hundreds of bogus investigations. Are they willing to risk all that just to deny McCarthy his gavel?
Yet, if they’re obstinate enough, there is an alternative that will allow the country to pay its bills, keep the government operating and maintain its leadership of the coalition against Russian aggression and fascism. Alaska is a very conservative state, but they’ve learned it’s better not to let the far right hijack everything because it just leads to ruin. The whole country can follow their example.