Centrist House members see opportunity with Ryan's retirement

Party polarization has divided the House of Representatives, but a group of Democrats and Republicans is forming a plan to elect a more unifying speaker after Rep. Paul Ryan steps down.

Toya Sarno Jordan/Reuters
US Speaker of the House Paul Ryan speaks to reporters at an enrollment ceremony for several House bills in Washington on May 24, 2018. Representative Ryan is retiring from his position after this term.

House Speaker Paul Ryan is retiring and there's no guaranteed successor. And whichever party emerges from the November election in control of the House isn't expected to have a big majority.

It's a recipe for upheaval, though one outside group sees a once-in-a-generation opportunity for lawmakers to overhaul their rules and put Congress on a more cooperative footing.

"The Speaker Project" is what the bipartisan group calls the idea it's circulating among House members.

According to a draft of a proposal provided to the Associated Press, a small group of Democrats and Republicans could "exert tremendous leverage" over the contest for the next speaker. They could band together and condition their support for the new leader on the promise of House rules changes to make governing less polarizing. There's already a list of other proposed changes.

"We have a perfect storm moment," said Nancy Jacobson, founder of the group No Labels.

Lawmakers will meet in private after Election Day to decide their nominees for speaker. A formal vote comes when the new Congress convenes in January.

With a potentially narrow party split between Democrats and Republicans, a few lawmakers could have considerable sway in picking the new leader.

The speaker holds enormous power in deciding how the House functions. The speaker essentially chooses which lawmakers sit on what committees and which legislation comes to the floor.

The ideas, however, are sure to face resistance.

Neither party would want to loosen the power that comes from having a majority in the 435-member House, including the traditional hold on the speaker's gavel. And institutional-minded lawmakers will certainly gripe that any changes that strip away majority power would make the House function more like the Senate, with its complex rules that protect the minority.

But as Congress has shown in recent years, minority factions within the leader's party can stymie the speaker by threatening to withdraw their support at any time. For example, the GOP's conservative wing, known as the House Freedom Caucus, has regularly used its power to block legislation or scuttle talk of compromise bills.

The caucus helped push Representative Ryan's predecessor as speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio into early retirement. Ryan also has struggled to manage his majority when the caucus' 30-plus members withheld their votes at critical moments.

To some, it's time for centrists to fight back.

Ms. Jacobson said the system "is just so frozen in place in dysfunction" and that changing the rules, which can be done at the start of each new session of the House, could go a long way toward a thaw.

The idea is gaining the attention of Reps. Tom Reed (R) of New York and Josh Gottheimer (D) of New Jersey, the leaders of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 48 centrist lawmakers, split evenly among Democrats and Republicans. Representative Reed and Representative Gottheimer are talking about it with their members.

The usually quiet, go-along-get-along centrists are taking a page from the Freedom Caucus playbook as they try to use their votes to bring about change.

"What we're trying to do here is address what we're frustrated about and what people at home are frustrated about," Gottheimer told the AP. "How do we get the place to work better?"

Added Reed: "What we're trying to do is reform the institution."

Among the ideas in the Speaker Project:

• Changing House rules for electing the speaker. It's now a simple majority, which almost guarantees that the speaker will come from the majority party. No Labels wants the requirement for a winning vote to be five more lawmakers than the majority party holds, in a nod to bipartisanship. For example, if the majority is split 225 to 210, then the speaker must receive 230 to be elected.

• Barring a single lawmaker from filing a motion demanding a vote of no confidence in the speaker. Instead, a motion could only be filed when a party's full caucus agrees.

• Evening out membership on the House Rules Committee, which determines the process for considering House bills and amendments on the floor. This change would give the minority a greater say on the flow of legislation.

Those pushing the changes say it's not unprecedented and that maybe it's time to do things differently, given the deep partisanship that creates logjams in Congress and mindful of the ability of a group such as the Freedom Caucus to control the action.

The speaker's race, they say, provides the opening.

"The system itself is sort of rigged with these rules," Jacobson said. "There's one person who has all the power – the speaker."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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