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A bipartisan vote for Speaker?

Greg Nash

The Republican majority in the House of Representatives (247 members) pays homage and allegiance to something called the “Hastert Rule.” You might have forgotten whom this rule was named after and in honor of. Let me remind you: He has left the chamber, but his name is back in the news.

This week, former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is reportedly negotiating a plea bargain with the U.S. attorney in Chicago. (This all has to do with illegal money withdrawals that relate to allegations of sexual molestation.) Excuse the digression.

{mosads}While he was Speaker, Hastert insisted that no bill be allowed to go to the floor unless it had a “majority of the majority.” This dictum was great for party solidarity but awful and tragic for the country. Its practical impact was that it inspired about 40 right-wing zealots to have their way. It was their goal not to legislate, but to impose ideological purity on all matters of public policy.

Departing Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was continuously intimidated by this group. On occasions when things went too far, he abandoned the Hastert Rule because it was making the GOP appear farcical and, more importantly, paralyzing government. Two critical issues for which Boehner did this were the fiscal cliff deal and the debt-ceiling increase.

The Republican majority, to this day, holds the Hastert Rule dear. At least it says it does for public consumption. It appears that present Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will be the next Speaker (after Oct. 30). The right-wing conservatives do not have anybody who can seriously compete against him. But McCarthy does need a majority of those voting to become Speaker. This indicates that a first-ballot victory by him may very well be in doubt.

(As an interesting aside, there is no requirement that the Speaker must be a member of the House; in the last election, certain members voted for Sens. Rand Paul [R-Ky.] and Jeff Sessions [R-Ala.] and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example.)

If the right-wing members play tough and gather up enough resistance, there might be a situation where the Democrats would have to deliver the necessary votes to actually elect McCarthy as Speaker. Twenty-five Republicans did vote against Boehner (including one voting “present”), last time. This is not an unrealistic scenario.

What I am recommending is that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) go to McCarthy and pledge to supply the requisite Democratic votes for him to become Speaker if he doesn’t have the required Republican votes. In exchange for this easy first-ballot victory, the Democratic leadership insists that the Hastert Rule be eliminated.

McCarthy pledges to have this decree be obliterated from the political lexicon and never again imposed on the U.S. House. In addition, Democrats would get a guarantee that the No. 2 person in the House GOP leadership would be in total agreement with McCarthy concerning the abolition of the destructive rule.

What does McCarthy get from this deal? Overnight, he goes from party hack to statesman. By pledging to bring up and move legislation with true bipartisan support, he is doing the nation’s work, not just the party’s work. Moreover, maybe — just maybe — the political climate changes. There is a genuine transformation. Polarization is replaced by progress. Cynicism is replaced by hope. The Republican Party gets a facelift. It is no longer perceived as the “party of no.”

I don’t know if McCarthy is capable of this act of political courage. I once had a very brief exchange with him over the issue of District of Columbia voting rights. He said that “they were working on it.” When I inquired what did that exactly mean, he repeated the phrase and then quickly walked away.

Kevin McCarthy does not quite strike me as a fearless visionary. But I would love to be surprised, assuming the Speakership might elevate his behavior. If this miraculously occurs, the country would benefit. Isn’t that what public service is all about?

Plotkin is a political analyst, a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner.

Tags Dennis Hastert Hastert Rule John Boehner Kevin McCarthy Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House Speakership Steny Hoyer

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