Capitol Hill: The Speaker Vote, and the Debt Ceiling

Published on October 8, 2015

At noon today, House Republicans will begin voting on their nominee to succeed John Boehner as Speaker. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California is all but dead certain to be that nominee, but we worry he will be in a weakened position that it is elevating the risks in the high stakes political battles over the “must pass” bills that loom, including the critical need to increase the federal debt ceiling.

*** Majority Leader McCarthy only needs a simple majority of the 246 Republican votes (the Speaker doesn’t vote) and is said to already have around 200 House Republican commitments in the secret balloting that begins in a few hours. Support for his challengers, Daniel Webster of Florida and Jason Chaffetz of Utah, does not extend much beyond the core of the 40 or more members of the Freedom Caucus which formally endorsed Webster yesterday, and between them, the two will divide the vote among the far right factions opposed to McCarthy. ***

*** But they key number today is not the 123 to win his party’s nomination, but the 218 Republican votes McCarthy will need to win the House floor vote on October 29. And on this front, not only is McCarthy failing to win support among the GOP dissidents, but many mainstream House Republicans are also questioning whether he is up to the job or how much he has had to promise the dissidents to secure their votes later this month, which could make the vote to increase the debt ceiling even more difficult than it already is. ***

218 as the Key Number

The GOP House conference will begin voting at noon today in secret ballots for its nominee as the next House Speaker to succeed Boehner, who announced last month he would be stepping down as Speaker on October 30.

Neither Webster nor Chaffetz, who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, have any chance of winning, nor is there much chance of their succeeding in the equally long shot aspiration to somehow deny McCarthy a majority of the House GOP vote to win on a first ballot. The hurdle for McCarthy is probably only around 123 yes votes, depending upon how many of the eligible 246 House GOP members vote (Boehner won’t be voting because he is retiring).

McCarthy already has around 200 commitments from House Republicans, but he looks to be still short of the 218 he would ideally need to win to be a solidly backed GOP nominee going into the full House floor vote on October 29. The 188 House Democrats will be voting for their Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

If McCarthy comes up short or just squeaking by the 218 hurdle today, as looks likely, it would raise serious questions of how weakened he is, and for some House Republicans, even whether he should withdraw his nomination.

In either scenario, there may be renewed grumblings within the House Republicans to draft House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan to step into the leadership vacuum as about the only House Republican capable of closing the ranks within the fractured conference to solidly win more than 218 votes. Short of that, there might be a movement to press Boehner to reconsider his resignation or to delay it until the end of the year. By definition, the Speaker position cannot remain vacant.

Doubts over McCarthy

The doubts over McCarthy began to surface nearly as soon as he announced he was a candidate. The Republican conservatives and moderates – around 200 or so of the total GOP membership and his first base of support – began to question his leadership abilities after he made numerous unforced errors due to his perceived over-eagerness in courting at least 18 votes among the remaining 46 members who count themselves among the far right ranks.

In the end, the Freedom Caucus decided to endorse Webster, one of their own, who is certain to lose.

McCarthy’s support was further eroded in the eyes of the mainstream by his appearance on Fox News’ Hannity show. He didn’t just fumble a “gotcha” question, he had actually planned ahead to falsely claim he had something to do with the formation of the special committee to investigate the Benghazi tragedy, and in addition to crowing over how successful it was in undercutting Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers.

In effect, he instantly damaged the legitimacy of the hearings that are supposed to be politically neutral. He was attacked by the special committee’s chairman — and McCarthy supporter — Trey Gowdy of South Carolina who said McCarthy’s multiple apologies cannot undo the damage.

And many are beginning to question how deep his real base of support is when he only reached the leadership position of Majority Leader by default to some extent, when Mike Pence who could have easily been Majority Leader left his House seat for a successful run as Governor of Indiana.

There is even some talk that McCarthy will be pressed to support a somewhat improbable run by Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio as Majority Whip or even Majority Leader over the bid by the current Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana or Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price of Georgia for the second slot in the leadership position.

At a candidate forum on Tuesday, for instance, McCarthy made promises of changing the representation on the House steering committee and their voting powers in the context of supporting “a more inclusive process.” The Freedom Caucus, among other demands, wants to ensure their amendments on spending bills get through the Speaker-controlled Rules Committee and come cleanly to the floor.

Crucially, the potential risk in meeting the political demands by dissidents is that the new Speaker and the next House GOP leadership would be effectively pledging to consult with the dissident factions like the Freedom Caucus on all key legislative issues in advance.

That is something that could quickly become tantamount to rejecting bipartisan leadership deals even before they can come together, thus significantly elevating the political risks around a must pass bill like increasing the debt ceiling, which Treasury Secretary Jack Lew wrote in a letter to Congress last week becomes a matter of urgency after November 5.

Debt Ceiling Deadline

In some ways, that earlier than expected deadline — we suspect the real drop dead date is still mid to late November after the mid-month refunding, but it doesn’t hurt to get Congress moving well before then — adds impetus to the efforts by Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to work with President Obama to cut a “Grand Bargain” redux — which could potentially wrap a debt ceiling increase into a two year budget agreement — before Boehner steps down at the end of this month.

But if McCarthy is weakened in the aftermath of tomorrow, his ability to provide the necessary political support to Boehner in his last lame duck weeks as Speaker could in itself derail the prospects for the deal. That could, in turn, push the need to pass the debt ceiling into the critical weeks of early November when the House GOP would be even more deeply divided than ever.

Most of the Freedom Caucus and other far right dissidents have already vowed to vote against any debt ceiling increase that does not include enough spending cuts to change the trajectory of spending growth down the road.

Another challenge may loom on the Senate side, where Minority Leader Harry Reid may slow roll talks that include Boehner in order to wait until he is replaced by a weaker successor. One of Boehner’s strengths is already seen as absent in McCarthy, namely his willingness and ability to pass the “must pass bills” – such as the debt limit – by circumventing the balking dissidents of the House GOP Freedom Caucus by inducing House Democrats to get to 218 or better. McCarthy’s ability to do the same could be in question.

The GOP leadership has insisted it will pass a debt ceiling bill. But if the Boehner and McConnell effort to pull off a two year budget deal with a debt ceiling increase should falter, the battle to increase the debt ceiling could go more deeply into November, significantly increasing the odds of an “accident” in the House digging in to refuse passing the debt ceiling.

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