The split between King, who represents a competitive district on Long Island and Cruz, who hails from deep in the red heart of Texas, has political roots that mirror the divisions in the House Republican caucus. There, a handful of Tea Party Republicans hold outsized influence over their leadership because the bulk of their Republican colleagues represent noncompetitive districts where a primary challenge from the hard right is a more realistic threat than a general election loss to a Democrat. This has kept the House Republican caucus marching behind Tea Party generals like Cruz, making it impossible for leadership to take steps to re-open the government and, potentially, raise the debt ceiling, despite private acknowledgment by Republican leaders that they are harming their party’s national standing.
Intra-party disputes are common in American politics, where the parties are broad coalitions of diverse groups with different agendas, but today’s internecine Republican strife is unusual for its zero-sum quality. More reactionary than conservative, the Tea Party faction views compromise as defeat and opposes the welfare state to a degree not shared by traditional center-right politicians or, for that matter, the American public outside Tea Party supporters. Their intransigence is damaging to their few Republican colleagues, like King, who have to worry about their general election prospects, and to the broader Republican brand.
Legislatures function effectively when coalitions form governing majorities. These majorities need not be large – just large enough to include fifty percent plus one of its members. It should be clear to anyone who has watched the 113th Congress that there is only one such governing coalition in the House: Democrats plus a minority of Republicans from competitive districts. This is the coalition at the heart of the “fiscal cliff” tax legislation and Hurricane Sandy relief. It is the coalition that would end the shutdown were Speaker Boehner (R-Ohio) to call a vote on the Senate’s continuing resolution to fund the government.
If that coalition were to band together it could run the House. Nancy Pelosi’s (Calif.) Democrats hold 200 votes for Speaker, which are normally superfluous because leadership elections are always two-party affairs. But 200 plus 18 gets you to fifty percent plus one. Imagine a scenario where, with no end in sight to the shutdown and default on the horizon, Pelosi offers a power-sharing arrangement to that handful of Republicans most damaged by the government closure. In exchange for the votes of her caucus, Democrats agree to make King, or whichever Republican can forge a small alliance of rebels, Speaker of the House, and to share plum leadership and committee assignments with the other renegades. In exchange, Democrats ask for a list of procedural guarantees that would advance the interests of everyone in the coalition: an immediate vote on the continuing resolution to fund government; selection of conferees to negotiate a budget; a long-term increase in the debt ceiling; and a vote on long-pending legislation like the farm bill and immigration reform.
The resulting coalition would be pragmatic, not ideological, and it would not hold together on important substantive issues like the content of the budget, but it would permit the work of government to proceed and advance the political interests of the majority of Representatives who are served by a functioning legislature and whose re-election prospects would be elevated by their uncharacteristic act of bipartisan statesmanship. There would be risk to those Republicans who would have to buck their leadership, but this would be offset by the greater political risk posed by the ongoing shutdown and by the promise of sharing leadership in the newly organized House. It would require bold thinking by Democrats who in normal times would be sworn opponents of their new coalition partners. The shutdown has produced a rare opportunity for an unconventional power-sharing arrangement, if the members who could make it happen are creative and courageous enough to seize it.
Kerbel is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Villanova University. He specializes in American Government, the Presidency, and Politics and the Media.