John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Dems Need a New Speaker

Posted on November 17, 2020

The last time a House majority failed so spectacularly to deliver expected results was 1998.


Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) promised his restless colleagues that he had a plan to deliver up to 30 more allies for his narrow Republican majority. That plan was to focus relentlessly on Bill Clinton’s Oval Office transgressions at the exclusion of any kind of legislative achievements.


Instead of gaining seats, the GOP almost lost their narrow majority, and Gingrich lost his job.


Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had already gone down the primrose path of impeachment earlier in this session of Congress, but her strategy was similar. She would hold her breath and refuse to negotiate a new COVID-19 relief package, secure in the knowledge from the latest polls that congressional Democrats would win in a blue wave.


Instead, Pelosi, if she maintains her iron grip on her caucus, could be staring down the face of the narrowest majority since 1919.


Former Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) used to say that he would rather have a one-vote majority than a hundred-vote majority. Better for discipline purposes. But Nancy Pelosi is no Mr. Sam.


She is far more controversial, far more divisive, far less centrist and far less in touch with the concerns of Middle America. How could she? In her reelection battle this year, she faced a challenge in the general election from the left, not from Republicans.


House Republicans could have up to 213 votes, if all goes well in the various recounts in the next week or so. That means that if they can convince five Democrats to vote with them, they have the majority.


Voting for the Speaker is the first thing every new Congress does. And there have been some close calls over the years. John Boehner (R-Ohio) had to sweat out a Tea Party rebellion. Same with Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Even Gingrich had some stragglers that voted against him in his second term as Speaker.


Since her first reelection as Speaker, Pelosi has had an average of five defections from her party during that first critical roll-call vote. Some congresses have been worse than others for her. In 2019, 12 of her colleagues stood up and announced they were voting for somebody else.


Voting against your party’s candidate for Speaker takes a significant amount of courage. Politicians of all stripes tend to have long memories. They keep score. And if you aren’t with them, you are against them.


The last time it took multiple ballots for the House to decide which Speaker it wanted to lead them was 1923. Frederick Gillett, a Republican from Massachusetts (yes, they used to have Republicans in Massachusetts) stared down a rebellion from the Progressive wing of the GOP and won on the ninth ballot.


It is not unprecedented for a member of the minority party to become Speaker, although it is exceedingly rare. In 1795, Jonathan Dayton, a Federalist, won the Speakership over Frederick Muhlenberg, a Democratic-Republican, despite his party’s minority status.


Pelosi is a tough politician and she has plenty of levers of power at her beck and call — including a complicit media and a vast war chest of campaign cash.


But the winds of change are blowing hard and it doesn’t seem to me that the House can possibly be immune to them.


It is unlikely that Republicans will successfully vote their candidate, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), in as Speaker. They simply don’t have the votes.


But they can have an outsize role in picking a Speaker more amenable to deal-making, should they choose to do so.


For example, on the second ballot — should there be one — Republicans could throw their support to Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a prominent liberal who helped Joe Biden win the nomination. Clyburn is far more pragmatic than Pelosi, far less ideological and far better liked among Republicans. He is also African American, and Republicans can return to their roots by voting for the first Black Speaker in the history of the House.


Such a vote could break up the legislative logjam and get the House working again. It could also put the remaining Democrats in a tough bind. Do you vote for the woke-left candidate who raises all the money or the pragmatic pol who can deliver some solid legislative results?


Feehery is a partner at EFB Advocacy and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip and as a speechwriter to former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).