Feehery: A possible House Speaker conundrum for Democrats

Feehery: A possible House Speaker conundrum for Democrats
© Greg Nash

The last time a House majority failed so spectacularly to deliver expected results was 1998.

Then-Speaker Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE (R-Ga.) promised his restless colleagues that he had a plan to deliver up to 30 more allies for his narrow Republican majority. That plan was to focus relentlessly on Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonA leadership menagerie of metaphorical scapegoats How Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 Biden is thinking about building that wall — and that's a good thing MORE’s Oval Office transgressions at the exclusion of any kind of legislative achievements.

Instead of gaining seats, the GOP almost lost their narrow majority, and Gingrich lost his job.


Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi says she would have put up a fight against Capitol mob: 'I'm a street fighter' Biden to address Congress on April 28 NY House Democrats demand repeal of SALT cap MORE (D-Calif.) had already gone down the primrose path of impeachment earlier in this session of Congress, but her strategy was similar. She would hold her breath and refuse to negotiate a new COVID-19 relief package, secure in the knowledge from the latest polls that congressional Democrats would win in a blue wave.

Instead, Pelosi, if she maintains her iron grip on her caucus, could be staring down the face of the narrowest majority since 1919.

Former Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) used to say that he would rather have a one-vote majority than a hundred-vote majority. Better for discipline purposes. But Nancy Pelosi is no Mr. Sam.

She is far more controversial, far more divisive, far less centrist and far less in touch with the concerns of Middle America. How could she? In her reelection battle this year, she faced a challenge in the general election from the left, not from Republicans.

House Republicans could have up to 213 votes, if all goes well in the various recounts in the next week or so. That means that if they can convince five Democrats to vote with them, they have the majority.


Voting for the Speaker is the first thing every new Congress does. And there have been some close calls over the years. John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner says he voted for Trump, didn't push back on election claims because he's retired Boehner: Trump's claims of stolen election a 'sad moment in American history' Trump digs in on attacks against Republican leaders MORE (R-Ohio) had to sweat out a Tea Party rebellion. Same with Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanTrump faces test of power with early endorsements Lobbying world Boehner throws support behind Republican who backed Trump impeachment MORE (R-Wis.). Even Gingrich had some stragglers that voted against him in his second term as Speaker.

Since her first reelection as Speaker, Pelosi has had an average of five defections from her party during that first critical roll-call vote. Some congresses have been worse than others for her. In 2019, 12 of her colleagues stood up and announced they were voting for somebody else.

Voting against your party’s candidate for Speaker takes a significant amount of courage. Politicians of all stripes tend to have long memories. They keep score. And if you aren’t with them, you are against them.

The last time it took multiple ballots for the House to decide which Speaker it wanted to lead them was 1923. Frederick Gillett, a Republican from Massachusetts (yes, they used to have Republicans in Massachusetts) stared down a rebellion from the Progressive wing of the GOP and won on the ninth ballot.

It is not unprecedented for a member of the minority party to become Speaker, although it is exceedingly rare. In 1795, Jonathan Dayton, a Federalist, won the Speakership over Frederick Muhlenberg, a Democratic-Republican, despite his party’s minority status.

Pelosi is a tough politician and she has plenty of levers of power at her beck and call — including a complicit media and a vast war chest of campaign cash.

But the winds of change are blowing hard and it doesn’t seem to me that the House can possibly be immune to them.

It is unlikely that Republicans will successfully vote their candidate, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyRepublicans need to stop Joe Biden's progressive assault on America Top academics slam Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act Boehner: 'There's a lot of leaders in the Republican Party' MORE (Calif.), in as Speaker. They simply don’t have the votes.

But they can have an outsize role in picking a Speaker more amenable to deal-making, should they choose to do so.

For example, on the second ballot — should there be one — Republicans could throw their support to Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a prominent liberal who helped Joe BidenJoe BidenIRS to roll out payments for ,000 child tax credit in July Capitol Police told not to use most aggressive tactics in riot response, report finds Biden to accompany first lady to appointment for 'common medical procedure' MORE win the nomination. Clyburn is far more pragmatic than Pelosi, far less ideological and far better liked among Republicans. He is also African American, and Republicans can return to their roots by voting for the first Black Speaker in the history of the House.

Such a vote could break up the legislative logjam and get the House working again. It could also put the remaining Democrats in a tough bind. Do you vote for the woke-left candidate who raises all the money or the pragmatic pol who can deliver some solid legislative results?

Feehery is a partner at EFB Advocacy and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former Speaker Dennis HastertJohn (Dennis) Dennis HastertFeehery: GOP should pursue an urban agenda Feehery: Fighting woke capitalism Feehery: American privilege MORE (R-Ill.), as communications director to former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip and as a speechwriter to former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).