Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will no longer be speaker of the House of Representatives — but she could nominate the next speaker. In doing so, she could point the way toward the political accommodations so badly needed in a polarized America.
While it has never been done before, the Constitution provides an opportunity to choose a speaker who is not a member of the House. Seizing that option, a magnanimous Pelosi could persuade her colleagues to propose a distinguished Republican for the role.
Obviously, she would not do so without the support of the Democratic caucus and her successor as party leader, presumably Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).
For Jeffries and the caucus, the proposal would present a clear choice between working with an independent Republican speaker open to bipartisan cooperation and facing protracted friction with an intensely partisan leader, presumably Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), captive to the most extreme faction within the Republican caucus.
Furthermore, both in the election of a speaker and in subsequent legislative votes, a Democratic offer to support a nationally respected Republican as speaker would provide a rallying point for moderate GOP House members to form coalitions. Establishing that pattern would both increase the possibility of a convergent cross-party majority on particular issues and, crucially, strengthen the leverage of more moderate Republicans in dealing with their own leader.
The nominee would need to be a person who has earned the respect of both parties and demonstrated commitment to finding common ground among partisans, whenever possible.
Such people exist. John Kasich, former governor of Ohio and erstwhile chairman of the House budget committee, and Paul Ryan, a former house speaker and vice presidential candidate, would stand high on the list. (Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) would certainly meet the standard, but the intense hostility toward her among many Republicans would make her nomination controversial rather than unifying.)
A carefully designed initiative of this sort by Democrats could be an act of high statecraft. It must be framed not to exploit the evident divisions among the Republican caucus but rather to open the way for members in both parties who recognize the nation’s urgent need to replace the hyper partisan strife that has deformed public discourse.
It would have to recognize that such a speakership would carry a unique burden of balancing the divergent claims and interests that flow through the House. It would certainly not mean easy sailing for a Democratic agenda.
The implications of such an arrangement would be manifold. The number of Republicans searching for a constructive posture in the wake of the party’s midterm electoral disappointments remains to be determined. If enough of them are prepared to join such an experiment, there would undoubtedly still be stressful episodes, as the speaker faced severe frictions between the parties. The speaker would have to defer to party leaders in setting committee assignments, including chairmanships.
Lacking a vote of his own, the speaker’s principal powers would lie in setting the agenda for floor action on specific legislation. Artfully played, the role could win important influence on the internal priorities of both parties, encouraging proposals that promise reasonable compromise on workable propositions and discouraging ideological showboating. There would remain ample possibilities for the two parties to stake out distinctive positions for future campaigns.
The eminent scholar Karl Deutsch taught that “prestige is to power as credit is to cash.” A speaker selected by a bipartisan coalition would hold a unique historic position and would enjoy unique historic prestige. Certainly, in congressional districts that are competitive, earning his endorsement could be a significant advantage for candidates in future elections. On that basis his prestige should encourage members of both parties to seek to balance their partisan priorities against the value of earning the speaker’s favor.
A non-member speaker working to steer convergence toward the political center could help narrow and isolate the fringe elements in both parties. That could be especially relevant in Republican efforts to move their party beyond the extremes that former President Trump promoted and profited from. A dynamic of this nature would be healthy for Democrats no less than for Republicans.
Wise leaders, including President Biden, understand that the republic cannot thrive if either of its great parties abandons honest competition in favor of bold-faced lies and anti-democratic objectives. Moving to a non-member Republicanspeaker could help revive that party’s worthier traditions.
Understandably, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy would find denial of the speakership excruciating. Yet, on reflection, he may see that, if chosen speaker, he would be condemned to indulge the destructive fringe of his caucus in ways that turn success into ashes in his mouth. Better that he exercises the power of a key leader collaborating with another Republican as speaker than pay the price of continuing subservience to colleagues who see him as a mere tool for ignoble purposes.
This idea may seem too far “outside the box” for Pelosi and Jeffries to consider. On the contrary, weighed against the likelihood of feckless, fractious political struggles, looking outside the House for a successor whom Democrats can propose in good faith could prove the culmination of Pelosi’s distinguished public service. There are reports that some Republican members, not keen on McCarthy as their leader, have been thinking of nominating Trump for speaker. Though that notion has little chance of gaining traction, a maneuver to put forward a genuinely qualified Republican could do so.
The central question becomes how many, if any, Republican members are prepared to accept an offer by Democrats to promote a distinguished Republican alternative for speaker while continuing their support for McCarthy as majority leader. If the minority caucus unites in the offer, it would require only a handful of Republicans to judge that such a tradeoff is in the nation’s interest and in their own.
Ideally, with dozens of members in the Main Street Caucus and the Problem Solvers Caucus – many determined not to yield control to the rightwing fringe – there should be a number who would welcome a chance to strike such a balance.
Having pledged in his campaign to work across the aisle, Main Street Caucus leader Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) has stressed that it is time for centrist Republicans to flex their muscles against extremist forces in the party. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) of the Problem Solvers Caucus has emphasized that his “community has spoken with an overwhelming voice in support of unity, collaboration, moderation and bipartisanship.”
Speaker Pelosi shares with both Kasich and Ryan devotion to the House as an institution. She and Jeffries may think of others who hold that faith. In the benighted state of American politics, that value argues strongly for nominating a speaker able to work with constructive members on both sides of the aisle. Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic successor are the only ones who can make that a serious proposition.
Alton Frye has worked with many members of both parties in the House and Senate, where he was staff director for the late Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) and a close associate of Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.)