The word in Washington this morning is that House Speaker Boehner has a deal in the works to temporarily raise the debt ceiling limit. This is good news, as it would avoid default. But it won’t eliminate the debate over spending and Obamacare that will surround budget negotiations. And there’s still no guarantee the tea party members of Mr. Boehner’s party will agree to support this deal, putting him right back in the position he is in now – reluctant to bring a bill to the House floor without the majority support of his party.
Boehner has spent much of his speakership worried about placating tea party conservatives. But if he again bows to their demands over a short-term debt-ceiling extension, he should be more worried about those in his caucus who hate this shutdown and the debt-ceiling brinkmanship. There are at least 23 of them – “reasonable Republicans” who could join with Democrats to occupy a powerful middle ground – and even oust Boehner as speaker.
Removing a speaker has actually never been done before, but neither has America seen this level of rancorous/reckless obstructionist politics exerted by the tea party to the threat of the entire government – and even the economy. Desperate times may just call for desperate measures.
The procedure to oust the speaker gets to the floor as a privileged motion. It takes one member to put it on the calendar, and there’s really no way of stopping the motion if the votes are there to support it. Boehner, to stay as speaker, would need the support of a majority of all members present and voting.
Why would any honest Republican support such a move and risk being branded a traitor, a RINO (Republican in Name Only), or worst of all, an Obama-enabler? Recent primary elections have seen tea party candidates defeat incumbent Republicans deemed not conservative enough.
But the favorability of tea party candidates in the eyes of the electorate may be shifting. We’ve seen examples of this at the state level, in Michigan for example.
And state-level budget crises have forced radical bipartisanship, which voters have rewarded. Look at what happened in the Senate in Washington State not too long ago. Three Democrats walked across the aisle, and worked with minority Republicans to craft a compromise budget, breaking a months-long deadlock. The anger of the Democratic leadership and base was fierce. But the state benefited. And voters and editorial boards around the state sang the legislature’s praises.
Peter King (R) of New York, Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia, Charles Dent (R) of Pennsylvania, and 23 other House GOPers have already let it be known in some form that they would likely vote for a “clean” continuing resolution. What if one of them were to walk into Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office and say: “What would you give me for reopening the government? How about the speakership for me? And some committee chairs for all the other independent Republicans behind me and some committee chairs for the Democrats?”
With a united Democratic caucus behind them, the rebellious Republicans would only need 17 solid GOP votes to take the speakership.
The Democrats would be eager for that deal, since it would allow them to gain some influence in a chamber that has been hostile to the initiatives of the minority party. And it would get the government working again, and avoid a default. And both the Democrats and these reasonable Republicans would get to share the credit.
Would those 17 Republicans willing to work with Democrats and oust Boehner be committing political suicide? Not necessarily. Many of them come from districts that don’t take kindly to tea party extremism. Peter King, for example, is a blue-collar Republican from Long Island. His constituents are practical people who support practical problem-solving.
In all but the most hard-right districts, the government shutdown is wildly unpopular. And economists are almost unanimous that a default by the United States risks a global recession, a run on the dollar, and hundreds of billions of dollars in higher interest payments for the US for decades to come.
National polls show that 60 percent of Americans blame Republicans for the government shutdown. It’s fair to assume that spearheading the solution that gets the government running again and avoids default is more likely to improve voters’ esteem of these Republicans than not.
As the Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson suggested, these more moderate Republicans should adopt a moniker for their renegade caucus like “True Republicans” or “Independent Republicans.”
If a successful breakaway movement emerges, it could become, at least for the next year, a fixture in the House, the necessary part of any winning coalition if the Democrats or tea party Republicans want to pass anything. They would become the deciders, much like Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court.
These rebel Republicans would also have something to show their districts: national headlines and editorials praising their judgment and daring; perhaps a chairmanship of a key committee; and a chance to continue to find workable solutions between left and right up until election day.
And out on the campaign trail, these Republicans would have great speeches: “I rose above partisan bickering, and saved America. I put country first.”
Jeremy D. Mayer is an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University.