10 min read

The House has been run by coalition before. Why not again?

A new — but not unprecedented — proposal to keep the government running.
The House has been run by coalition before. Why not again?
(Photo by the White House)

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Funding the government is always a challenge when control of Congress is divided, and doing so in the next 10 days will not be easy. But couldn’t it be easier than this?

If you boil things down to their simplest level, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has two options in front of him to avoid a shutdown on September 30:

  1. He can find a bill that is able to pass the Democratic-led Senate and pass the House solely using Republican votes.  
  2. He can pass a bill in the House using a combination of Democratic and Republican votes.  

McCarthy’s best-case scenario, of course, is Option 1. He is a Republican speaker and, in a perfect world, his government funding bill would be a purely Republican solution.

But a bill that would satisfy the conditions in Option 1 will be incredibly difficult to conjure. At least four House Republicans have said they will only support a government funding bill that defunds Special Counsel Jack Smith, which would be an immediate non-starter in the Senate. That leaves only one more House Republican who could defect, and several other GOP members have conditioned their support for a funding bill on a spending level below a $1.56 trillion topline, which Biden and McCarthy negotiated earlier this year and which has bipartisan buy-in in the Senate.

It’s possible that the GOP holdouts could eventually cave and accept a bill amenable to the Senate. But that process would be highly painful, as evidenced by McCarthy’s experiences on Tuesday, when five Republicans sunk a procedural vote on his defense spending bill and about 15 forced him to pull a vote on his preferred continuing resolution. (And those are just his struggles getting Republican support for bills that are too conservative to pass the Senate. Imagine trying to get the holdouts to accept measures even less right-leaning.)

Rank-and-file House Republicans are clearly fed up with the holdouts, using quite vivid language to describe their colleagues. “It’s a clown show,” Rep. Mike Lawler told Semafor yesterday. “The patients are now in charge of the hospital,” House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN) — the man charged with wrangling the patients — reportedly said. McCarthy himself has essentially called one holdout a quitter and accused the rest of not being “willing to govern.”

But if he feels that way, he has an easy answer: just ignore them! Article I of the Constitution does not require that every member of the House majority party agree on a bill to fund the government.

So why doesn’t McCarthy just pull the trigger on Option 2?

Enter Matt Gaetz

Because as soon as McCarthy goes down that road, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) has said he will file a motion to vacate, which would trigger a vote on ousting McCarthy as speaker.

That’s why McCarthy is clinging to Option 1 for as long as possible. “This isn’t the 30th, we have a long ways to go,” McCarthy said this week when asked why he doesn’t simply strike a deal with Democrats.

But eventually, he will have to choose between a shutdown — which he has said would be a political loser for Republicans — and a motion to vacate. Even McCarthy’s critics acknowledge this.

“The thing that would force the motion to vacate is if Kevin has to rely on Democrat votes to pass a CR,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), a Freedom Caucus member, recently said. But then Buck added: “I don’t see how we can pass [a CR] without Democrat votes.”

That gives up the game right there. If the rebels acknowledge that they will oust him for any solution that could realistically able to fund the government, there isn’t much of a reason to continue working with them. McCarthy should simply box them out — as many fed-up House Republicans clearly want to do — and focus on finding a bipartisan solution that would allow him to fund the government and survive a motion to vacate.

How Option 2 would work

We already know a bipartisan deal setting government spending levels could pass both chambers of Congress — because one did in May, when 149 Republicans and 165 Democrats came together to embrace the $1.59 trillion topline, which McCarthy hailed as a landmark victory at the time.

There’s plenty of precedent for a House speaker looking to the other side of the aisle to get must-pass legislation across the finish line. Former Republican speaker John Boehner, for example, relied on Democratic votes to fund the government in 2011 and 2012, as well as to avoid the “fiscal cliff” in 2013.  

But we have never seen a speaker rely on votes from the other party to stay in office. In the Boehner example, once his members got fed up with his violations of the “Hastert Rule,” he quit before a motion to vacate could be put up to a vote, so we never learned whether Democrats would have been willing to come to his rescue.

In this case, you can imagine the contours of a deal whereby McCarthy agrees to a bipartisan CR — probably with Ukraine aid thrown in to please the Senate, and maybe some border security fixes to mollify a solid chunk of House Republicans — and enough Democrats agree to keep him on as speaker. Maybe other elements would have to be put on the table as well: concessions on impeachment, or votes on certain bills, but it’s not as if there’s no way McCarthy could keep his job under these conditions if he really wanted to. At the very least, such a deal would probably be no harder to strike than the equally-Sisyphean task of satisfying Option 1, his current project.

At that point, we would enter uncharted territory, effectively running by coalition government.

The 34th Congress model

Except, it wouldn’t be completely uncharted.

At the beginning of this year, there was a lot of attention paid to past House speaker battles, as McCarthy entered the history books with the fifth-longest speaker election in House history.

But not a lot of attention was given to the longest-ever election, in 1855, when it took two months and 133 ballots to elect Speaker Nathaniel Banks.

Banks also has the distinction of being the only House speaker in U.S. history to effectively hail from a third party. With the Whig Party in decline, he won the speakership by cobbling together an anti-slavery coalition of Whigs, disillusioned Democrats, and members of the American Party (better known as “Know-Nothings”). Within a few years, this grouping would eventually become the Republican Party — but for now it was just a fragile umbrella group known simply as the “Opposition Party.”

America’s first experiment with coalition government didn’t last long: by the next election, Democrats retook control of Congress and Republicans had formed to oppose them. The 34th Congress was not especially productive, and its unity leadership was not successful in preventing civil war. In the meantime, violence increased across the country and in the Capitol: this was the Congress of Bleeding Kansas and the caning of Charles Sumner.

But the coalition did succeed in its one key organizing principle: staving off pro-slavery legislation. “One conflict with Slavery has been settled without a compromise,” the Whig leader Thurlow Weed wrote approvingly. A former House speaker hailed Banks as “the best presiding officer…ever seen,” noting his ability to hold competing factions together and maintain the respect of the whole chamber.

Back to reality

Unlike Nathaniel Banks, McCarthy is a party man through and through, and he would probably sooner hand the speakership to Steve Scalise or Elise Stefanik (assuming the Freedom Caucus would take them) than govern by coalition under the circumstances I’ve described.

But I still think this thought experiment holds some value, to show that a coalition Congress would not be completely unprecedented — something lawmakers may want to keep in mind in the coming years.

Traditionally, the threat of government shutdown has been seen as incentive enough to force the two chambers of Congress to work together. But with a significant group of House Republicans essentially cheering on a shutdown, the old models might not work any more.

Across the globe, numerous countries run on coalition governments; several of the laboratories of democracy, our 50 states, have done so as well, including Alaska for the past few years. Some scholars have argued that coalition governments can be stabilizing influences more conducive to economic growth.

At the end of his recent book “Why Congress,” congressional scholar Philip Wallach lays out three scenarios for Congress’ future, which he refers to as “Decrepitude,” “Rubber Stamp,” and “Revival.” His “revival” scenario — the only one of the three that features long-term legislative productivity — is essentially Congress by coalition. Perhaps “such bloc building can unblock our politics,” he writes, sketching a portrait of lawmakers inking common-sense compromises on all sorts of issues under a more fluid system of factions.

As it stands now, “we basically run a coalition government without the efficiency of a parliamentary system,” Paul Ryan, another former Republican House speaker, has said. This has never been more clear than in today’s House: the “Five Families” of the current GOP majority increasingly function as more of a fragile coalition than a unified political party.

Now, with a shutdown looming and McCarthy’s job in danger, that coalition is falling apart. McCarthy can spend the next 10 days trying frantically to hold it together — or he can simply isolate the small faction of his conference not on board, and stop trying to compromise with the uncompromising.

If he’ll need to work across the aisle to keep the government open eventually anyways, why not skip to the ending — whatever that ending might hold?

More news to know.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams. (Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

The breakup: Biden and Adams avoid each other in New York / Politico

Democrats retain narrow control of Pennsylvania House after special election / AP

Biden aides and Saudis explore defense treaty modeled after Asian pacts / NYT

Ray Epps, subject of Tucker Carlson’s Jan. 6 conspiracy theories, charged by DOJ / NBC

Justice Department probe scrutinizes Elon Musk perks at Tesla going back years / WSJ

Former Clinton impeachment prosecutor sentenced for insider trading / Axios

The day ahead.

Then-Vice President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. (U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv)

White House: On his last day at the UN General Assembly in New York, President Biden will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Brazillian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

This will be Biden’s first meeting with Netanyahu since the Israeli leader returned to office almost a year ago. The decades-long relationship between the two men has turned south since Biden’s public criticism of Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reform plan. Netanyahu had been hoping for an audience at the White House; that their meeting is taking place in New York, not D.C., is being interpreted as a snub in diplomatic circles.

Lula, a leftist who defeated the far-right Jair Bolsonaro last year, is another former leader back in power. He has been busy this week promoting Brazil as a leader in the Global South and on the world stage, although his neutrality on Ukraine has made him a holdout in the international community — a topic sure to come up in his sit-down with Biden. The two leaders are also set to hold an event on workers’ rights.

Before returning to Washington tonight, Biden will hold two campaign fundraisers, bringing his total to four during the three-day New York swing.

House: The schedule is up in the air in the lower chamber, where votes on the Republican leadership’s stopgap funding bill or defense spending package are possible, subject to negotiations among the warring GOP factions.  

On the committee level, Attorney General Merrick Garland will testify before the House Judiciary Committee, his first appearance before the panel since Republicans claimed the majority — or since Donald Trump was indicted. He is likely to be battered with questions from GOP lawmakers on the Trump, Hunter Biden, and January 6th investigations.

Senate: The appropriations process has also hit a speedbump in the Senate, where bipartisan leaders are working to speed through passage of the three-bill “minibus” package that would fund the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development.

The VA element of the package was advanced by a 91-7 vote last week, but Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) objected to attempts to bundle the other two funding bills along with it. The chamber will vote today to suspend Senate Rule XVI, which would override Johnson’s objection and allow for the three bills to be packaged together. The gambit will need support from 67 senators to work.

Federal Reserve: Fed chair Jerome Powell will hold a press conference after the conclusion of the Fed board’s two-day meeting. For the second this year, in response to slowing inflation, he is not expected to announce new interest rate hikes.

Campaign Trail: Donald Trump will make a rare campaign trip to Iowa today, hoping to ensure Ron DeSantis doesn’t eat into his lead in the state after the ex-president’s recent comments on abortion. (Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds rebuked Trump for the comments yesterday.) DeSantis will unveil his energy policy in a speech in Midland, Texas.

Before I go...

File:Trichoplax adhaerens photograph.png
The placozoan. (Bernd Schierwater)

Here’s something fun: “For hundreds of millions of years, pancake-shaped animals the size of a needle tip have been roving the seas with an appetite for tasty microbes and algae,” the New York Times reports. “They’re called placozoans, and are among the simplest of the major animal lineages.”

Placozoans are so simple that they look more like amoebas — but they are, in fact, animals. Not only that: scientists have found compelling evidence that they have neuron-like cells — which could mean that it’s from them that the entire human nervous system is descended.

Read the full Times piece here for free.

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