The United States is often said to have a two-party system. This is true until it isn’t. In reality, the Democratic and Republican parties consist of disparate factions that agree on most things, disagree on some things, and are generally willing to put their differences aside for electoral purposes. In theory, both parties have leaders who are tasked with managing these internal tensions.
Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy failed with that task on Tuesday. Eight disaffected Republican lawmakers, led by Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, joined with the entire Democratic caucus on a motion to vacate that removed McCarthy from his speakership. It was the first time in American history that the House of Representatives had successfully voted to oust a speaker of the House. McCarthy later told the House GOP caucus that he would not try to regain the post, throwing the contest to claim what’s essentially become a poisoned chalice wide open.
After the vote, some pro-McCarthy Republicans criticized Democrats for not riding to the now-former speaker’s rescue. McCarthy himself claimed that former Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised to help bail him out if the far-right members of his caucus tried to oust him. The House Problem Solvers Caucus, a grouping of Democratic and Republican lawmakers that touts bipartisanship, is reportedly in danger after many of the GOP members threatened to resign in protest of their counterparts’ role in McCarthy’s removal.
The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis summed up their line of reasoning in a Tuesday column. “It would be understandable if Democrats decided to remain neutral on Tuesday (by voting ‘present’), reasoning that it is a Republican civil war,” he wrote. “But they didn’t. Instead, by voting ‘no’ on the procedural motion to table Rep. Matt Gaetz’s motion—and then voting ‘yes’ on his Motion to Vacate the Office of Speaker—Democrats effectively voted for Gaetz. And a vote for Gaetz is a vote for chaos.”
This is generally not how things work in Washington, as Lewis himself acknowledged later. Democrats are under no actual obligation to support a speaker from another party. He instead argued that Democrats “failed to do the right thing on behalf of the American people” by not keeping in power a speaker who was willing to work with them on raising the debt ceiling, passing a budget, keeping the flow of military aid to Ukraine open, and so on.
“Although Dems aren’t to blame for this chaos, they have a moral obligation to strive for the best outcome for America, and—based on the likely alternatives—Speaker McCarthy is probably as good as it gets,” Lewis argued.
The easy rebuttal would be to point out McCarthy’s own approach to bipartisan governance was far from inspiring. Here was a speaker who had refused to vote to impeach Donald Trump for inciting a deadly attack on the Capitol, who tried to place Trump loyalists on the House January 6 Committee, who disbanded that committee at Trump’s behest after becoming speaker, and who had recently agreed to launch an impeachment inquiry against Biden based on false corruption allegations. Just last weekend, he publicly blamed the narrowly averted shutdown of the federal government on Democrats when members of his own party were actually responsible. Why, exactly, should they go to the trouble of helping this guy out?
Nonetheless, Lewis raises a good point. The next speaker of the House will likely be just as unable to manage the GOP’s internal factions and might need Democratic votes to keep his job. If McCarthy’s successor wants to govern with the support of Democratic lawmakers, he’ll need to provide them with something in return. Democrats should start drawing up a wishlist for that purpose.
In other countries, this state of affairs would be described as a minority government. Countries with parliamentary systems occasionally find themselves with legislatures where no single party commands 50 percent of the seats. The party with the largest share of seats is then obligated to obtain support from smaller parties to pass a budget. These coalition governments usually draft up formal agreements to lay out what they’ll do in power.
When Britain’s Conservative Party formed a coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrats after that country’s general election in 2010, for example, the two parties laid out the basic terms of their deal in advance. The Tories struck a less sweeping but equally necessary agreement in 2017 to form a majority by relying on votes from Northern Ireland’s regional Democratic Unionist Party. This process is a bit more straightforward in the U.K. because Parliament is functionally unicameral. (The House of Lords can delay and try to amend legislation from the Commons, but not permanently block it.)
Thanks to the House Freedom Caucus, the Gaetz-led far-right faction, and the GOP’s razor-thin majority in the House, the Republican Party already essentially operates as a minority government there. Indeed, pro-McCarthy conservatives have already sketched out a retrospective outline for how this coalition could work: McCarthy agreed to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government open in exchange for modest concessions by Democrats. This did not satisfy Gaetz and his cohorts, so they ousted him.
To be sure, the Senate filibuster means that Democrats wouldn’t be able to extract any significant legislation with a new Republican speaker. A new version of the Voting Rights Act, final passage of the DREAM Act, or other measures would be unrealistic to include in any proposed deal. That leaves only things that could be achieved through the budget reconciliation process, which bypasses the Senate’s 60-vote threshold.
Two things stand out at the top of that wishlist. One would be to restore the expanded child tax credit that Congress initially enacted during the Covid-19 pandemic. That expanded measure was credited with lifting millions of American children out of poverty. Conversely, as my colleague Grace Segers explained last month, the Census Bureau found that its expiration at the end of 2021 led child poverty to more than double across the country in 2022.
House and Senate Democrats originally planned to extend it as part of the Build Back Better Act, the legislation that largely laid out Biden’s domestic agenda while Democrats controlled the House, Senate, and White House before last year’s midterm elections. But West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin forced it out of the bill, claiming publicly (and potentially incorrectly) that it would increase inflation and privately that the people who received the tax credit were spending it on drugs. With the additional Senate seat that Democrats gained in the midterms, Manchin’s vote would no longer be necessary to pass it.
The second must-do is the abolition of the debt ceiling. As I and countless others have noted on countless occasions over the past 15 years, the debt ceiling does not actually stop the U.S. government from accumulating new debt. It only stops the executive branch from spending money to cover existing debt that was already authorized by Congress. In today’s hyperpartisan era, the debt ceiling serves only as a gun pointed at the American economy’s head so that one faction can extract concessions from another.
This is a blatant violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states unequivocally that the public debt “shall not be questioned,” not even by Congress. President Joe Biden would be justified to declare today that it is beyond Congress’s power to impose and that he would not abide by it. But for the sake of fiscal stability—and as a hedge against potential shenanigans at the Supreme Court if the legal dispute were to reach them—it would be ideal if Congress slew the monster that it unleashed in the first place.
Republicans may yet find a way to elect a speaker who satisfies their entire caucus, of course. But that would be a surprise given the fates of John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and now McCarthy himself. If the non-Gaetz faction of the House GOP wants to truly stabilize the speakership until the next election, they might once again seek Democratic votes to do so. When Republicans come knocking next time, Democrats should make it clear that there will be a few things that they’ll need in exchange to save their bacon.