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Democrats could bail out Kevin McCarthy — but shouldn't

McCarthy is struggling to lock in the votes to become speaker of the House? What a shame.

It’s been more than a month since Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, was nominated as the next speaker of the House by the Republican caucus. But since then, he’s been struggling to lock down the support he needs for the full House to sign off on his ascension.

That means McCarthy faces a situation that hasn’t occurred for nearly a century: a floor fight for the speakership. Already the ongoing saga has affected his ability to prepare Republicans for being in the majority next month. If not resolved before then, there’s a chance that the House remains completely stymied until one side gives in — and Democrats should absolutely let this play out for as long as it takes.

When McCarthy was anointed as the speaker-to-be last month, it wasn’t exactly a flawless victory. There were 31 votes against him in the GOP’s secret ballot, not a great sign for anyone but especially not for McCarthy, given the narrow four-vote majority he’ll be working with over the next two years.

If they hold firm, it means that McCarthy would have only, at most, 217 votes to his name.

Some of those 31 votes were likely members who just wanted the chance to protest anonymously but will flip to support McCarthy when the full House votes. But there are already five members of the “Never Kevin” bloc: Arizona’s Andy Biggs, Florida’s Matt Gaetz, Virginia’s Bob Good, South Carolina’s Ralph Norman and Montana’s Matthew Rosendale. As of Friday, none of the five — who say they will vote as a group and have enough votes to tank McCarthy’s bid — look as if they’re budging anytime soon. If they hold firm, it means that McCarthy would have only, at most, 217 votes to his name.

The effects of Team Never Kevin’s intransigence is already being felt in the selection of committee chairs. For the GOP, that process plays out in the House Republican Conference Steering Committee, which has about 30 members and where the speaker controls four votes, giving him an outsized voice. The conference met Wednesday and approved committee chairs in uncontested elections. But three chairmanships remain open, including the Ways and Means committee, one of the chamber’s most coveted gavels, and it will likely remain that way until the speaker drama is resolved.

Crucially, electing the speaker is one of the first orders of business on the first day of a new Congress, before the rules of the House can be adopted, before the members are even sworn in. Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University, recently published an amazing resource on the ins and outs of the process to elect a speaker, laying out what Jan. 3 might look like for McCarthy. And unless something changes between now and then, the outlook is pretty grim.

McCarthy would need to get an absolute majority of those present and voting in the room, or 218 votes — one more than he can reach without Team “Never Kevin.” Because nothing else can really get done before the speaker is chosen, there’s a chance that multiple rounds of voting will be needed before someone is actually selected, something that hasn’t happened since 1923. And while it seems unlikely to beat the two-month long purgatory that the 34th Congress experienced when choosing a speaker in 1855, there’s no real reason at this point for Biggs, Gaetz and the others to budge barring total capitulation from McCarthy toward whatever demands they make. (It’s not like they have better things to do like, I don’t know, legislate.)

Unless there is something as major as helping pick the next speaker on the line, Democrats should let the GOP sort this one out for themselves.

As Glassman noted, there are some options for the members to break a long-lasting deadlock, including some members voting “present” to lower the number of votes needed for a majority. The House could also pass a resolution declaring that whoever gets a plurality of votes will become speaker. Such a resolution would require a majority to pass, however, which means at least some Democrats would have to join McCarthy’s supporters for it to get over the line. Politico also reported earlier this month that a “group of centrist Democrats have discussed potential ‘back-up’ plans if McCarthy can’t get to 218 votes, including working with moderate Republicans to try to come up with a mutually agreeable alternative.”

That last scenario would be undoubtedly funny. But unless there is something as major as helping pick the next speaker on the line, Democrats should let the GOP sort this one out for themselves. As Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the incoming Judiciary chair, pointed out, until Republicans settle on a speaker, they can’t move forward with investigations into the Biden administration and whatever other nonsense they want to push forward. And provided a bill to fund the government through the fall passes before the new year, there’s not much must-pass legislation that the House needs to get done right at the start of 2023.

That being the case, why should Democrats help McCarthy get the votes he needs to take the speaker’s gavel? Better to take this time to highlight the disarray among Republicans, all while taking part in every vote to keep the bar nice and high. Until the GOP works it out, or a compromise candidate emerges, I recommend bringing a few crosswords, answering constituent emails and maybe taking a page from the British and setting up their own version of the infamous lettuce cam to best track how long disorder reigns in the House.