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Speaker race: Crossing the river Jordan with advice for House Democrats

If Minority Leader Jeffries gets a shot to end the impasse, he can’t get greedy

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., center, Conference Chair Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., and House Minority Whip Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., conduct a news conference earlier this year.
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., center, Conference Chair Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., and House Minority Whip Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., conduct a news conference earlier this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Nearly a century ago, the rope-twirling humorist Will Rogers cracked, “I am not a member of an organized political party — I am a Democrat.”

Talk about historical turnabout.

Every hour of Republican dysfunction in the House adds another chunk of marble to the pedestal of a statue honoring former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

A tiny House majority only appears to be a formula for disruptive chaos when Republicans are in charge.

Kevin McCarthy proved to be the shortest-tenured speaker since the 19th century. If Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, succeeds in Tuesday’s expected floor vote by bludgeoning GOP moderates into submission, his time as speaker would probably be limited to less than 15 months.

What would be the case for reelecting a Republican House in 2024? I am groping for campaign rationales:

“Give the Republicans another chance — maybe they’ve learned their lesson.”

“Isn’t it wonderful that the Republicans taught the nation about a motion to vacate?”

“Instead of legislating, the House Republicans treated us to something more special: political performance art.”

Let’s just say that the 18 Republicans representing districts that President Joe Biden carried in 2020 shouldn’t be rushing to sign any long-term leases in Washington.

Everything in Jordan’s history on Capitol Hill suggests he regards serving as speaker entirely in terms of messaging votes and partisan antics.

This will make him a hero on Fox News and an honored guest of former President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago. But it is hard to see how a potential Speaker Jordan would help candidates win ample Republican votes in purple congressional districts where the FBI and the Justice Department are not considered enemies of the people.

It was vaguely amusing when the Republicans took 15 separate votes to anoint McCarthy as speaker in January as cameras inside the chamber were permitted to pan around to pick up angry confrontations and near fistfights.

But a light-hearted mood was possible back then because almost nothing mattered legislatively at the beginning of the congressional session. There were no deadlines, no urgency, no sense of crisis.

The world is infinitely different in the fall of the year. Israel is in crisis, aid to Ukraine is hanging by a thread, government funding is slated to expire next month and policies for controlling the border need revamping without political posturing.

Does anyone believe that a potential Speaker Jordan would negotiate a compromise to make sure that the government continues operating after Nov. 17? Is there any glimmer of hope that Jordan recognizes that blocking aid to Ukraine would make Russian President Vladimir Putin purr with delight over American fecklessness?

Jordan, with his penchant for yellow ties and his weird disdain for suit jackets, is the embodiment of the House Republican Conference, a political grouping unable to grasp the concept of divided government.

With Jordan and Co., it’s their way or the abyss.

None of this should make House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and the House Democrats regret their collective decision not to save McCarthy from being ousted by a group of his fellow Republicans.

McCarthy forfeited the coin of the realm on Capitol Hill: his word was not his bond.

McCarthy tried to renege on a deal on spending levels that he cut with Biden during debt-ceiling negotiations in June. And then, after Democratic votes provided the margin of victory on a temporary spending bill, McCarthy had the temerity to go on “Face the Nation” on CBS to claim those same Democrats had wanted to shut down the government.

But if Jordan goes down in flames on Tuesday because the dwindling band of House GOP moderates actually display some gumption, the latest Republican flameout would open up an opportunity for Jeffries and Democrats.

This would be the moment for Jeffries to step up not for partisan advantage but as the best thing for the country.

Any bipartisan effort to elect a speaker — or to empower Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., to serve as speaker pro tempore, but with additional authorities until the end of the 118th Congress — would not be the stuff of liberal fantasies. This would not be a backstairs attempt to enact the Biden legislative agenda.

Jeffries should be willing to trade enough of his Democratic votes for limited concessions from McHenry or another compromise speaker candidate.

A possible package might include needed military aid funding for Israel and Ukraine, money for dealing with the southern border crisis and — maybe as a cherry on top of the sundae — expelling embattled GOP Rep. George Santos of New York from the House.

The other implicit part of the bargain would be realistic negotiations on funding the government through the end of the fiscal year at levels agreed to during the debt ceiling negotiations.

The risk for Jeffries, in what would be his first high-stakes negotiation as House Democratic leader, would be in asking for too much. Republicans are entitled to the fruits of their gossamer-thin majority. No one should expect a nonpartisan speaker following a good-government agenda.

Fairly or unfairly, House Democrats are the only adults in the chamber.

Which is why, even if Jordan wins the gavel on Tuesday, he may face a future GOP motion to vacate the speakership. For uneasy is the crown that depends on the support of Republican insurrectionists who have no real agenda other than primal screams.

House Republicans have demonstrated they are to legislating what the Keystone Cops were to effective law enforcement. If Democrats cannot run against this level of GOP incompetence in 2024, then they deserve a remedial course in “Political Messaging 101.”

And if Jeffries does get a chance to resolve the paralysis in the House, the Democratic leader should remember one of the fundamental rules of politics: Don’t get greedy.

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