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Whip it good? Not exactly, say Democrats who watched the GOP speaker fight 

Electing a speaker is ‘the ultimate whip operation,’ and Republicans had some trouble counting

A member keeps a tally on the House floor during a failed attempt to elect a speaker on Oct. 18.
A member keeps a tally on the House floor during a failed attempt to elect a speaker on Oct. 18. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Former Rep. G.K. Butterfield was so eager to talk shop that he called this reporter five minutes early. Republicans at the time were still feuding over who to pick for speaker, and the retired Democrat was keeping score.

“So, Emmer has about 40 percent of the vote,” he said, engaging in some quick mental math as tallies leaked from a closed-door meeting. “Once a whip, always a whip!”

That instinct for vote counting served Butterfield well as senior chief deputy whip in the last Congress. Despite a narrow 222-211 majority in the House, Democrats managed to elect Nancy Pelosi as speaker on the first ballot and then enact a number of sprawling bills, including a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief measure, the $1.2 trillion Inflation Reduction Act, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, the $52 billion CHIPS and Science Act, a statute shoring up gay marriage and the first gun control measure in decades. By some metrics, it was the most productive Congress ever.

The same cannot be said of this Congress.

“It’s such a difference, such a difference, between the Republican conference and the Democratic caucus,” said Butterfield, who is hardly a disinterested observer.

After blowing through three other nominees, House Republicans elected Mike Johnson as speaker Wednesday, celebrating their newfound unity and the end of three chaotic weeks. It was the 19th speaker vote on the floor this year, the most rounds since the Civil War.

Ousting Kevin McCarthy and then scrambling to replace him was “perhaps the dumbest set of politics or decision-making a majority party in this institution can make,” said North Carolina Republican Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, who oversaw some of it as speaker pro tempore. Or maybe it was an example of democracy in action — “one of the greatest experiences in the recent history of our republic,” as Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota put it, despite getting burned by the process himself.

Whatever else it was, it was an epic vote-counting fail, said many Democrats who spend their time whipping votes on the Hill. 

“That’s the ultimate whip operation, getting the speaker’s race,” said a senior aide on the Democratic leadership team who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

“I never understood the mindset of walking into an election saying you’re going to lose it,” the aide added.

The day before his defenestration, McCarthy struck an unruffled pose, tweeting, “Bring it on” and projecting confidence that the coming vote would reaffirm his party’s faith in his leadership. It did not. 

In the weeks to follow, Republicans in leadership would repeatedly prognosticate on the fate of the race with consistently wrong predictions. Before he bowed out as the GOP’s nominee, Majority Leader Steve Scalise and his allies said they thought he had the votes. He didn’t. Before he lost his first attempt on the floor, House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan and his allies said he’d win in the end, with McCarthy at one point telling reporters Jordan would “get there.” He didn’t. And Emmer’s nomination didn’t last long enough — just five hours — for his supporters to make any bold predictions. 

Republicans’ rootlessness runs far deeper than just the speaker fiasco, said Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who served with Butterfield as a senior chief deputy whip in the last Congress and remains on the team today under Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. 

“Nancy Pelosi was the best vote counter around, and she was not going to call a bill that was not going to pass, in dramatic contrast with what the Republicans are doing now,” Schakowsky said. “We haven’t seen more bills and rules fail in two decades as we’ve seen under the Republicans [this year].”

While McCarthy’s troubles were evident from day one, his end was precipitated over the summer, when a group of 11 Republicans, including seven of the eight who eventually voted to oust him, joined Democrats in voting against a rule on the House floor, making it the first rule since 2002 to fail. To quell that rebellion, nominally over a messaging bill about gas stoves that had no chance of becoming law, McCarthy agreed to keep appropriations bills below the levels he negotiated with Democrats in a deal over the debt limit. Democrats later cited that betrayal as one of the reasons they declined to save his speakership.

“That’s the difference between her and McCarthy,” the leadership aide said. “We never made promises we couldn’t keep. We’ve made promises that we will try.

“There were multiple conversations I had where we go left and then right and all of a sudden have to go down the middle,” he said, explaining how just earnestly and constantly communicating with holdout members would sometimes be enough to gain their support.

Butterfield noted how Democrats have had their own leadership battles over the years, like when Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland defeated John Murtha to become majority leader despite Pelosi’s support for the Pennsylvanian. But they always united afterward: Hoyer continued as Pelosi’s top lieutenant until they both stepped down last year. “Democrats believe in the principle of majority governance, but apparently that same belief is not there in the Republican conference,” Butterfield said.

‘Not on the back of an envelope’

Pelosi faced some intraparty opposition in her successful 2019 and 2021 speakership elections, but according to one aide on the Democratic whip team, the results were never in doubt. Once they knew they had the House majority, her team started identifying which members might have a problem voting for Pelosi: mostly moderates who ran as independent voices in their battleground districts.

Even though some would withhold support for her on the floor, their votes came as no surprise and without the bitter feelings that have left Republicans at one another’s throats this year. “The speaker had conversations with all those members,” the whip aide said, asking for anonymity to speak frankly.

Pelosi focused on protecting incumbents, he said, even when that meant letting them vote against leadership — or even against her in the speaker’s race. “We knew how to take care of our members,” the aide said. “The whole goal here is to be in the majority so you can legislate. You don’t keep the majority if you’re going to lose your members.”

While Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House in the last Congress, they needed Republican votes in the Senate to overcome any filibuster, forcing them to consider the minority’s views on many bills. 

When members wanted to oppose a bill, whether to stave off a primary challenge from the left or to avoid getting labeled a rubber stamp for Pelosi by Republicans, the whip aide said the team would try to find a way to let them — assuming, of course, they could guarantee passage without their support. That open dialogue among Democrats continued throughout the Congress, Butterfield said, led by Majority Whip James E. Clyburn.

“We had a very elaborate whip operation,” Butterfield said. “It was not on the back of an envelope.”

“We would survey the staff — we had them on speed dial — and if we saw an inclination that a member had any unreadiness, then Mr. Clyburn would approach the member on the floor and have a conversation and make notes.”

From there, concerns got kicked upstairs to Hoyer as majority leader, and if he couldn’t reconcile differences, then they’d bring in the big guns. “On rare occasions, it would be Nancy Pelosi who would reach out to the member and have a … not a combative conversation, but a member-to-member conversation about their unreadiness,” Butterfield said. “And I saw many, many times where Speaker Pelosi changed her position, or moderated her position, on issues of importance to accommodate a member.”

The Democrats admitted they would deploy some hardball tactics to win over recalcitrant members — Pelosi’s been called the “velvet hammer” — but they said they kept those under wraps. Threats to support primary opponents were whispered on the floor, not shouted on cable news.

The leadership aide described how Democratic leaders might first ask a holdout’s allies in Congress to intervene, and if that didn’t work, they might look outside Washington, like to a congressman’s local mayor.  

“It’s one thing to have outside validators in the speaker’s election. You need to know how you’re going to get someone’s vote. Is it a direct one-to-one? Is it a single bank shot? A multilayer bank shot?” he said. “None of that is a public pressure campaign.”

The leadership aide bristles whenever someone compares the conservative Freedom Caucus to the progressive Squad, saying they’re both extreme wings of their parties. “Whether it’s AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], whether it’s Cori Bush, that group [the Squad], they talked to us all the time,” he said, adding the same went for the moderates who’d occasionally buck leadership to bolster their independent street cred.

The Democrats said they were surprised that McCarthy, one of the best political fundraisers ever, was unable to command more support; of the eight Republicans who voted for the motion to vacate that ended his reign on Oct. 3, all of them got PAC money from him in recent election cycles. “It’s the lifeblood of this thing, and the guy prints money,” said the leadership aide.

Ultimately, though, the Democrats said the two parties are fundamentally different, which makes any would-be Republican speaker’s job much harder, if not impossible.

“These guys, they don’t want to be part of the team,” the leadership aide said. “When you have a five-seat majority, and you have six or more people that don’t want to be part of the team, you’re stuck.”

That attitude is new in the GOP, Schakowsky said.

“I was here through all the George W. Bush administration, and it was nothing like this,” said Schakowsky. “We got stuff done during the Bush administration because the ethic was that you can fight like cats and dogs, but at the end of the day you come up with a compromise and pass legislation that we can agree to that nobody on either side loves.”

Briana Reilly contributed to this report.

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