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15 Members Pledge to Withhold Speaker Vote Without Rule Changes

8 Democrats, 7 Republicans part of bipartisan Problems Solvers Caucus

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., said he will not vote for a speaker who doesn’t back the Problem Solvers Caucus proposed rule changes for making the House more bipartisan. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., said he will not vote for a speaker who doesn’t back the Problem Solvers Caucus proposed rule changes for making the House more bipartisan. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

At least 15 members of the bipartisan Problems Solvers Caucus have pledged to withhold their vote for speaker if the candidate that emerges as the majority party’s nominee does not back the caucus’s proposed rule changes.

The Problem Solvers unveiled a package of rules changes in late July dubbed “Break the Gridlock.” The proposals aim to open up the legislative process in a way that prioritizes bipartisanship.

Their ideas include a fast-track process for legislation co-sponsored by at least two-thirds of the House; a guarantee each member gets at least one markup of a bipartisan bill in a committee they serve on; a three-fifths threshold to pass bills under a closed rule; and at least one germane amendment from each party for structured rules.

When the package was first announced, only a few Problem Solvers Caucus members like New York GOP Rep. Tom Reed, the group’s chairman, said they would only back a speaker candidate if that person supported the rules changes. 

Reed even said in an interview with Roll Call over the summer he’d be willing to vote for a Democratic speaker candidate that backed the package if Republicans end up in the minority next year. 

“If we lose the House, I would consider voting for a candidacy such as Steny Hoyer,” he said, referring to the current House minority whip who has complimented and expressed interested in the Break the Gridlock ideas.

At a Thursday luncheon hosted by No Labels, Problem Solvers members Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., Stephanie Murphy, D-Fl., and Mike Coffman, R-Colo., all said they supported using the speaker vote as leverage to secure the rules changes. 

“We’re going to put our money where our mouth is, literally,” Fitzpatrick said. “We have to stand up. That’s going to be a seminal moment for our caucus. It’s going to be a seminal moment for the House.” 

Fitzpatrick said he’s talked to several speaker candidates about the rules changes, as have other Problems Solvers members. 

8 Democrats, 7 Republicans

A No Labels staffer noted a total of 15 Problem Solvers members — eight Democrats and seven Republicans — pledged to withhold their speaker vote to ensure passage of the rules changes. Roll Call requested a  full list of the members, which was not provided at the luncheon.

This election cycle, in which control of the chamber could be decided by a handful of seats, provides the Problem Solvers Caucus, which formed at the start of the current Congress, a unique opportunity to execute this strategy, Coffman said.

“We believe that there will be a very narrow majority … by a handful of votes,” he said. “And so it gives a small group of people from the Problem Solvers, who commit to standing up to the leadership … an opportunity to say, ‘We will not allow the speaker of the House until we get this rules package done.’”

The speaker vote and the rules package vote both occur on the opening day of the new Congress in January. But the majority party will select its nominee for speaker in late November or early December.

The majority will then be working behind the scenes to finalize a rules package, so if the product does not end up as promised the Problem Solvers Caucus can protest it by voting against the speaker nominee on the floor. Such a scenario could create chaos on the floor, but more likely an agreement would be struck before the vote.

Opposite party support?

The real question is how far the Problem Solvers are willing to go to execute their leverage. Traditionally members of the minority party vote for their caucus’s leader during the speaker vote, or occasionally another member of their party, but never the majority party’s candidate. 

Reed’s admission that he’d be willing to vote for a speaker of the opposite party if they back the Break the Gridlock proposals is significant, especially since it’s an open question whether the leading speaker candidates in each party — Republican Kevin McCarthy and Democrat Nancy Pelosi — can get 218 votes on the floor from their own parties. 

But how many other Problem Solver members feel the same way as Reed? 

O’Halleran and Fitzpatrick both said they’d be willing to vote for a speaker candidate of the opposite party who backed the rules changes if their party ends up in the minority. 

“We either keep our word or not,” O’Halleran said. “If that person is going to reform this system, it’s much more important that we get that vote taken and get that person in a position [to change the House]. That means though that they have to open it up. That means that they have to have bipartisan bills going through the body. And that means that there will be much more transparency in the process.” 

Murphy was more hesitant to make such a commitment. 

“I’m open to it, but obviously I would prefer to vote for a Democratic speaker and hopefully somebody who has adopted these rules changes”

Coffman dismissed the question altogether, predicting it is more likely there would be multiple rounds of the speaker vote until members coalesce around a candidate. 

“I don’t think either party is going to be able to muster the votes in the first round. There will be multiple rounds,” he Coffman added. “It is going to be a very different process I think. The parties will be able to come up with somebody, but it will take a while.”