Amateur Hour

by John Lawrence

At receptions in her conference room, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi periodically will tap a glass with a piece of silverware to hush the crowd so that she can announce the arrival of Members of her Caucus. Such introductions had already occurred several times on Thursday afternoon when once again, the clinking sounded, heralding another announcement. This one was a doozy.

Pelosi’s disclosure that Kevin McCarthy had just withdrawn from the speakership election stunned a crowd of Members, staff and retirees – “What did she say??” – into astonished silence. Even this politically savvy, feeling-the-pulse, inside-the-Beltway, ear-to-the-ground crowd was caught off-guard. It was a surprise that it took Pelosi’s tapping on a glass to get peoples’ attention; one might have thought the explosion from the Republican Conference would have been heard throughout the Capitol.

For several days, I have been suggesting that one plausible outcome of the Republicans’ musical chairs could be imposing the mantle of Speaker on the demurring Paul Ryan (who, to my knowledge, has never said he wouldn’t accept the gavel, only that he was not a candidate). The current batch of hopefuls, as well as those being mentioned, are so pathetically unqualified and unsuitable as to represent genuine risks to Republicans should they become national spokespeople, as was true of the tongue-tied McCarthy. Like him or not, the pressures will build to put a “trusted,” “senior” leader at the top of the House dais, and Ryan’s the only one in town. Which says a lot.

Ryan is understandably reluctant to accept the honor. As the past Budget chairman, he knows something about deadlines and certainly appreciates that the December 11th CR date is fast approaching. Whoever occupies the Speaker’s office is going to have to either twist Republican arms to force through a Continuing Resolution that the Senate will pass and the President will sign, or he will have to follow that familiar trek down to Nancy Pelosi’s office and ask her for the votes, agreeing to whatever concessions she demands for delivering the needed Members.

The former option has not worked well for Boehner; time after time, his troops have refused to provide him with the votes he needs for CRs, debt ceiling increases, tax extenders and other must-pass bills. The latter option is the one that enraged the wing nuts and drove John Boehner into early (and doubtless blissful) retirement. Why would Paul Ryan want to do that, especially when he can continue his present fun job of chairing the Ways and Means Committee?

Ryan might want to be Speaker someday, but this probably isn’t the day. Unfortunately the shambles into which the Freedom Caucus has thrown the Republican Conference may leave him no choice if the party comes knocking. In this case, it isn’t so much taking one for the team that is so objectionable; it’s the team.

There are, of course other options, none very promising:

  • One of the other current candidates: Daniel Webster or Jason Chaffetz. Both non-entities, maybe not even team players. No gravitas to maneuver through churning waters over the next year. Not likely.
  • One of the retiring Members, such as John Kline, might serve as an interim Speaker. (The Republicans had one of those in Denny Hastert for nearly a decade.) The next Speaker to going to have to throw a little weight around. A departing Member does not send that message. He can’t even make good on retributions he might threaten to impose at the beginning of the next Congress. Makes little sense.
  • Cut a deal with Nancy Pelosi to choose a Speaker acceptable to both parties without having to depend on the Freedom Caucus, and in return, promise her floor votes on something she wants: an immigration bill, a budget Grand Bargain including taxes and entitlements that lifts the sequestration caps, the Highway Trust Fund, the Ex-Im Bank. Hmmm, I really do not see Mrs. Pelosi running into this burning building to save the barking dog who’s been keeping her awake for the past 5 years. Even if the Republicans could deliver on their promise to bring such legislation to the floor, such concessions are meaningless unless the promise is enforceable all the way to putting a signable bill on the President’s desk. And no one can make that promise. Besides, why would Nancy Pelosi want to cosign a mortgage on this House with these Republicans as cosignatories?

No, I think this is one dilemma the Republicans are going to have to figure out all by themselves, and the carnival atmosphere of the past two weeks does not inspire much confidence in their strategic skills. But it should be entertaining to watch.