Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz announced Sunday he is running to replace John Boehner as speaker, challenging House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy who seemed a shoo in to ascend to the House’s highest post until the weekend.
“Kevin McCarthy is a good man. He’s a big reason why we have such a solid majority, but things have changed, and there’s really a math problem,” Chaffetz told Fox News Sunday. “You need 218 votes on the floor of the House, there are 246 Republicans who will vote, but there are nearly 50 people and a growing number that will not and cannot vote for Kevin McCarthy as the Speaker on the floor. He’s going to fall short of the 218 votes on the floor of the House.”
As Chaffetz points out, in any vote for speaker on the House floor—whether they’re electing one or deposing one—218 votes are needed. If a speaker wants to survive all 218 better come from the Republican aisle. Which means, with a majority of 246, any would-be speaker can’t lose more than 28 votes or they’re caput. The problem is, the Freedom Caucus, a loosely affiliated group of about 40 Tea Party conservatives has figured out that out.
It was the Freedom Caucus’s threat to force Boehner to vacate his seat that prompted the Speaker to announce his retirement effective Oct. 30. And now McCarthy, who says he has the votes sewn up, seems to be facing a similar problem. Further complicating things, Republicans seeking the No. 2 and 3 leadership slots are asking for their votes, scheduled for Oct. 8, to be pushed back because they want more time to campaign, a move Boehner is considering.
In the nation’s first 100 years, there were 36 Speakers of the House. In the second 100 years, there were just 20. In the last 26 years, there’ve been five. But now the tide may be turning. The country could now be entering a new era: the Twitter speakership. McCarthy’s speakership seems threatened to be over before it’s even begun—mostly because he made the mistake of politicizing the Benghazi Committee, thereby giving Hillary Clinton a powerful retort on a subject that was otherwise a loser for her. But even if he does win that thorny crown, odds aren’t good he’ll last very long given a packed legislative schedule filled with bills that are likely to need Democratic votes to pass. Even if he defeats Chaffetz, he could last no more than a month in the job, or until the end of the year.
In the current House, every bill represents a potential opportunity for the Freedom Caucus to depose the speaker if they are unhappy with the bill he has put forward, which is likely to be the case at lease some of the time. If the Speaker puts forward a bill to continue funding the government, he can be deposed. If tries to avoid a default on the nation’s debt, the same outcome is possible once again. The Ex-Im Bank reauthorization, the Federal Aviation reauthorization, tax extenders vital to the business community and a multi-year transportation infrastructure bill: all must-pass items by the end of the year—some, like the debt ceiling by early November. And yet little or no negotiating for a solution on any of these issues is taking place because of the chaos surround the House leadership elections. House Republicans, it would seem, have more than one math problem.
The Speaker’s Lobby, just off the House floor, is adorned with portraits of the 61 speakers to rule the House thus far. The architect of the House might soon consider searching for more wall space.