The idea has been circulating around the U.S. Capitol this week like a hopelessly lost tour group: If Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) fails to win enough Republican votes to become speaker, Democrats could bail him out—or help elect a compromise candidate to the post.
Both Republicans and Democrats have dismissed the proposal as either an Aaron Sorkin-esque fantasy or a deliberate ploy from pro-McCarthy forces to scare the GOP holdouts into getting behind the California Republican.
But with the speakership still in limbo after six roll call votes in two days, the House still paralyzed, and McCarthy’s path to the gavel still very much in doubt, the once far-fetched idea is starting to sound downright reasonable.
Within the Democratic ranks, lawmakers and aides are quietly gaming out how and when they might help break the GOP impasse—or if they would do so at all.
“I mean, anything is possible, right?” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), formerly the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. “If they want to work with us, I mean, I think we want to do what’s right for the institution and what’s right for the country. But I’ll tell you this: I’m not a cheap date.”
While Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) said “it’s hard to see how it happens,” it was clear he had thought about what it might mean for Democrats to not be a “cheap date.”
Beyer listed three demands he thought Democrats should have for any talks on a compromise with the GOP: commitments to raise the debt limit cleanly, fund the federal government, and more power on committees.
That sentiment was amplified by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). “If there is any potential of a kind of coalition candidate or, you know, Democrats bailing out Republicans, I think it would have to result in a much deeper and a much more profound negotiation of the structure of the House,” she told The Daily Beast.
Ocasio-Cortez was the subject of numerous tweets and memes when she was seen talking to hard-right McCarthy detractor Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and then later Matt Gaetz (R-FL) on Tuesday. But Ocasio-Cortez clarified during an Instagram Live that she had been discussing a rumor, started on the Republican side, that Democrats planned to “cut a deal” and hold back votes, allowing McCarthy to pressure his holdouts into voting for him through threats of retribution.
Ocasio-Cortez said these Republicans were just checking to see if there was any truth to those rumors. “Are there going to be Democrats who walk away in order to throw McCarthy a bone and cut a deal?” she said, summarizing their questions.
While the rumors had no truth then, Democrats lowering the threshold for the speaker by voting present—or just not voting at all—remains one of the clearest ways the drama could end. But if Democrats agreed to such an arrangement, it would almost certainly come at cost for McCarthy.
Lawmakers and aides caution that the strategizing is very preliminary at this stage, and as of Wednesday evening, Democrats remained in a posture of sitting back and letting Republicans attempt to work it out themselves.
“I don’t think that it’s our place to come to them,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI). “I think when they're frustrated enough, they will come to us. And I’ve already had some kind of ribbing conversations with them, and we’ll be ready to have those conversations when and if they come to us.”
While Slotkin told The Daily Beast that prospect was looking more likely—and that she’d thought about what she would want in talks with Republicans—she did not offer details. “I’m not going to talk, because I want the negotiations to work,” she said.
Still, a few general scenarios began to take shape on Wednesday, as the House adjourned for a second day without electing a speaker. On Wednesday morning, Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE)—a moderate Republican and McCarthy backer—floated the idea of McCarthy courting Democrats and haggling for their votes. That night, he confirmed he was continuing to talk with Democrats.
For most Democrats, however, McCarthy is radioactive. One lawmaker, speaking anonymously to candidly describe colleagues’ sentiments, told The Daily Beast that the caucus broadly believes McCarthy’s path to the gavel has closed. Democrats seem to have little interest in helping the California Republican get the 218 votes he needs, no matter what concessions might be on the table.
If McCarthy’s bid falters, several Democrats said they would consider serious concessions along with the right compromise candidate. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) told Fox News that Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), a leading moderate, would be palatable to him, as would Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI). The Democratic lawmaker also laid out another red line: that Democrats would only support a Republican who did not vote to object to the 2020 election results. Such a scenario may only come into focus not only if McCarthy fails, but if Republicans also fail to coalesce around another candidate for speaker.
If 20 conservative hardliners have been able to block McCarthy, the resistance they—and likely many more Republicans—might put up to a more moderate candidate would look even more furious by comparison. Conversely, if McCarthy can’t secure the votes from his own conference, and a new candidate emerges, the “Only Kevin” caucus may give conservatives a taste of their own medicine.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) said Wednesday that he was willing to “hold out forever” on electing McCarthy, and that it would take McCarthy resigning from Congress for him to even consider a different candidate.
If McCarthy’s detractors are stubbornly unwilling to move, and McCarthy’s strongest supporters are also spitefully unwilling to consider anyone else, then Democratic votes are more of a necessity than a thought experiment.
Still, some of the concessions Democrats might demand could be too hard to swallow even for deal-oriented Republicans. Some might balk altogether at the idea of working with Democrats to elect even a fellow Republican.
But the same fundamentals that have empowered the anti-McCarthy faction to bring the House to a screeching halt could also enable a critical mass of Republicans and Democrats to get it going again. Currently, the GOP holds 222 seats, while Democrats hold 212.
Even if the chances of a Democratic intervention dissipate and Republicans rally around a candidate, it is a telling omen for the GOP majority that these scenarios were even considered at all. Electing a speaker is the first and most basic task of governing. In the next two years, Republicans will have to pass bills to fund the federal government and pay the federal government’s debts without causing a catastrophic default on its debts.
If McCarthy’s struggle is any indication, those tasks could be far more difficult for Republicans than in years past—and empower the Democratic minority.
“The bottom line is,” McGovern said, “no matter who the speaker is, if you want to get anything done around here, you have to work with us.”
The caucus’s broad expectation is that McCarthy will withdraw from contention, the Democratic lawmaker told The Daily Beast. And yet, there are some indications of informal talks happening across the aisle, particularly between centrist members.
Moderate Democrats, including Reps. Jim Costa (D-CA) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX), spent a good while sitting on the Republican side of the House chamber Wednesday, chatting with their GOP colleagues.
But if any Democrats were to intervene to break the impasse, it’s expected that whatever they do will be blessed by Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY).
“If the Republicans want to have a conversation about something, they should reach out to Leader Jeffries,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), who is close to the new minority leader. “I don’t encourage members to freelance.”
House Democrats so far have had a perfect record across six ballots, voting unanimously for Jeffries every time, without any absences. Reports that Democrats might miss votes out of boredom or to allow Republicans a lower quorum have yet to come to fruition.
At a press conference on Wednesday morning, House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar (D-CA) said Democrats understand the options in front of them. “But we’re not going to engage in any hypotheticals,” he said, proceeding to nominate Jeffries three more times after.
But even as the ongoing speaker debacle offers Democrats some spicy schadenfreude, the pros for them to hold out slowly shrink as time goes on. Although it prevents Republicans from getting to work, it also blocks Democrats, too—from being sworn in, hiring certain staff, passing any legislation, and much more.
There’s also the misery of existing on a loop, voting for the same thing over and over again. On Tuesday, Democrats were chipper and often chatty throughout the votes, many joined by their families in the chamber. But on Wednesday, much like the Republican side of the room, Democrats appeared more fatigued. They were still noticeably more energetic than their conservative colleagues, but the excitement of relishing in Republicans’ pain was clearly beginning to dissipate.
After the sixth round of voting, McGovern told The Daily Beast, “I’m trying to think of a nice word for shitshow. But that’s what's going on.”