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Would Democrats agree to a deal in the race for House speaker?

Retired Rep. Fred Upton, a relative GOP centrist by contemporary standards, is suddenly interested in being House speaker. Would Democrats consider a deal?


House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy failed badly yesterday in his bid to become speaker, but the Californian’s troubles were not altogether surprising.

In the two months between the midterm elections and the start of the new Congress, Republican opposition to McCarthy’s promotion has been growing steadily. In fact, my first post-election report on McCarthy’s difficulties ran on Nov. 10 — two days after the midterms — and noted a Republican source who’d told Fox News, “Knives are out for Kevin McCarthy.”

Three weeks later, amid scuttlebutt about who might emerge as a Republican alternative, Politico reported that retiring Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan had been mentioned as a possible compromise pick — who could garner some Democratic support. (The chatter reached Donald Trump, leading the former president to denounce the idea by way of his social media platform.)

Yesterday, as The Detroit News reported, Upton sounded surprisingly interested in the gig.

Former Michigan U.S. Rep. Fred Upton says the possibility he could become a consensus candidate to break the Republican House speaker stand-off is “an intriguing suggestion that I have not rejected.”

The News’ report added that Upton has generally demurred when asked about this possibility, but yesterday, the retired congressman swung the door wide open, saying he’d be willing to serve as speaker in order to “put an end to the dysfunction that is doing so much damage to the country.”

The Michigan Republican added, “I would need Democrats. I could get a significant number of Republicans.”

The next question, of course, is whether Democrats would go along with such a plan.

Stepping back, there are basically three possible agreements Democrats and Republicans could theoretically reach in the race for House speaker:

  1. The parties could rally around a relatively centrist Democrat who some Republicans could tolerate.
  2. The parties could rally around a relatively centrist Republican who many Democrats could tolerate.
  3. The parties could strike some kind of deal with McCarthy that would give him the gavel he’s so desperate to grab.

The first option seems the least likely given the circumstances: Any Republican who backed a Democrat for speaker — after voters elected a GOP majority in the chamber — would see their careers in Republican politics come to an abrupt end.

The third option also seems far-fetched: Democrats do not like, trust, or respect McCarthy, and they do not see him as more appealing than any of his far-right rivals.

But what about a relative GOP centrist, such as Upton, standing behind Door #2? What’s to stop the retired congressman from striking a deal with House Democrats — a deal that could include, among other things, an agreement on raising the debt ceiling in a sane way — and finding a half-dozen GOP House members who might want to end the drama and back a mainstream Republican they know and admire?

It’d be an overstatement to describe such a scenario as likely. It is not. For one thing, Upton is well to the right of every Democrat in the House, without exception. For another, I’m not at all sure there are even six GOP House members who’d go along with such a plan.

But the odds of such a plan coming to fruition aren’t zero.

Indeed, let’s not forget that Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, a relative moderate among House Republicans, told NBC News in mid-November that he’d be willing to work with Democrats to elect a more mainstream leader for the chamber.

“I will support Kevin McCarthy, but if we do get to that point, I do want the country to work and we need to govern. We can’t sit neutral; we can’t have total gridlock for two years,” Bacon said on Nov. 14.

Asked whether he was prepared to team up with Democrats, Bacon added, “Yes, but that’s assuming we can’t get to 218 beforehand.”

Well, as of yesterday, reaching 218 appears awfully difficult.

Watch this space.

Postscript: In case this isn't obvious, under House rules, members have the ability to elect literally anyone as speaker, not just sitting members. Upton, in other words, is fully eligible for the office, despite being retired.