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The bipartisan speaker fantasy

“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else,” reads the famous and apparently apocryphal quote attributed to Winston Churchill.

Could the American Congress do the bipartisan thing after they’ve tried everything else?

It’s the subject of growing speculation that now includes several key members of Congress. High-profile Republicans and Democrats have responded to the GOP’s continued inability to settle on a speaker by floating a bipartisan deal. The idea is that Democrats would provide some votes to elect a more mainstream Republican candidate.

The effort appears to have been injected with some urgency thanks to Republicans now having nominated Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the hard-right Freedom Caucus founder, after Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) bowed out Thursday night.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said Thursday that Democrats are “willing and able to find a bipartisan path forward” on “partnering to reopen the House” — provided Republicans make rules changes to keep the hard right in check.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said it’s time for Jeffries and the Democrats to make an offer: “We’re willing to work with them, but they’ve got to tell us what they need.”

Rep. María Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) said that “we’re open to anything that’s reasonable.” And a prominent moderate, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), added that “in the end, a bipartisan way may be the only answer, because we have eight to 10 people that do not want to be part of the governing majority.”

Negotiations are thus far informal and limited, but the effort appears at least more serious and out-in-the-open than when it was during now-ousted speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) rocky ascent to the job in January.

As with everything during such contentious negotiations, these comments should be viewed as the bargaining chips that they are. Floating a bipartisan deal makes sense for certain Republicans as a warning sign to force the hard right to compromise more than it’s thus far been willing to do.

There are also numerous factors pushing against such a thing ever happening, and it’s easy and probably valid to dismiss this as merely the latest bipartisan fantasy in an increasingly polarized country. The nature of these situations is that they always appear intractable right up until the moment that one side caves, and we reach a resolution. Holding out and floating your opponents’ nightmare scenarios is an inherent part of the exercise.

But we’re already in uncharted territory when it comes to a party’s struggles to elect a speaker on its own. If the GOP’s more mainstream members were ever to decide to hold the line like the hard right does — a major, major “if” — it’s difficult to see how it gets resolved. A speaker elected with only GOP votes, after all, can lose the support of only four colleagues.

And it’s hardly unheard of for American legislatures to do this kind of thing; indeed, this kind of arrangement is on the upswing in the states, having been forged in three states after the 2022 election:

In Alaska, both chambers chose bipartisan governing coalitions that excluded a handful of further-right Republicans after Republicans won narrow majorities. (The state Senate is especially bipartisan.)In Pennsylvania, a narrow and temporary House GOP majority led to a brief bipartisan coalition with an independent speaker.And in Ohio, more moderate Republicans pulled a shock move by banding together with Democrats to elect a more moderate GOP speaker over the GOP’s nominee — even as Republicans held a two-thirds supermajority.

The other oft-cited example of this kind of arrangement came in Texas in 2009, when Republicans had a razor-thin majority. The vast majority of Democrats voted with a small number of Republicans to elect a moderate GOP speaker, Joe Straus, who would go on to hold on to the job for a decade.

“It would be great to have such a Republican elected Speaker in DC,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), who was part of that coalition in the state House.

But other examples reinforce that forming such a coalition to elect a speaker isn’t the end of things. Forging an actual governing coalition — something McCarthy couldn’t do despite winning the title — is really the name of the game.

Pennsylvania’s setup quickly devolved, despite the acknowledgment that it was likely temporary, with the independent speaker (a former Democrat) and the Republicans who joined forces with him accusing one another of treachery. Ohio’s setup has also proved messy within the GOP conference.

The devil is indeed in the details for a potential bipartisan deal in the House.

Among the issues: Would Democrats be willing to stomach a pretty conservative Republican speaker, or would they insist on an actual moderate? Would that speaker be expected to include Democrats on major pieces of legislation or merely to avoid the kind of shutdown brinkmanship that the House Freedom Caucus demands? What might Democrats demand as far as policy concessions? And might Republicans ultimately oust that speaker like they did McCarthy once they get their act together and decide the new status quo isn’t to their advantage?

At some point, though, more mainstream Republicans should probably recognize that they are being dominated by a relatively small hard-right faction and that their refusal to play the same brand of hardball only continues to empower it. As with former president Donald Trump and his stranglehold on the party, the easy and expedient move in the moment is to go along in the name of moving past the immediate problem but over time that can create even bigger problems for you.

And Republicans with a desire to govern suddenly have some very big problems, with no easy answers. Which could make the harder ones, however desperate and unprecedented, suddenly more attractive.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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