The Coalition Option

By Mike Dorf

Desperate times demand desperate measures and so I'm accelerating my Monday blog post to Saturday. No, that's just a little joke.  The real desperate measure I have in mind is what I'm going to call the "Coalition Option."  It rests on the assumption that Speaker John Boehner is one of at least 17 Republicans who are neither themselves believers in the Tea Party agenda nor so afraid of a primary challenge from a Tea Party candidate that they are willing to back the plan to shut down the government and/or default on U.S. obligations in order to take a stand against Obamacare and what they regard as unsustainable debt.  That is, I'm going to assume that Boehner and at least 16 other Republicans would be willing to join with the 200 Democrats to form a majority in favor of funding the government and paying the government's bills.  Doing so would violate the "Hastert Rule"--under which the Speaker only brings to the floor measures that enjoy the support of a majority of the majority party--but that's not a real rule anyway.  Boehner violated it in the so-called fiscal cliff deal, for Hurricane Sandy Relief and to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.  The Hastert "Rule" draws its force from the implicit threat by the majority of the majority that it will withdraw its support from the Speaker.

Is John Boehner willing to lose his Speakership in order to save the country from a wholly avoidable economic crisis?  Perhaps, but he doesn't need to.  Instead, he can maintain the Speakership if he and 16 Republicans join all of the Democrats in voting down any proposal to remove him from the Speaker's chair.

Would Boehner be willing to serve as Speaker under such circumstances?  Maybe not, but if he isn't then the alternative might be that no one would be Speaker.  The Democrats are in the minority and so they can't elect a Speaker without Republican support, while the Tea Party-affiliated plus Tea Party-frightened Republicans still don't constitute a majority of the House--or at least so I'm assuming for the purpose of this exercise.  (If the Tea Party faction is a majority of the House, then none of this matters; they will either depose Boehner and replace him with one of their own or retain him only on condition that he do their bidding.)

In discussing the possibility that Boehner retains his Speakership through a coalition of mostly Democrats and non-TP Republicans, I have been met with the following question: Why would Boehner want to be Speaker at the sufferance of the minority?  I can think of a few possible answers:

1) Because he cares about the country.

2) Because he has an ego and it's better to be a weakened Speaker than to be a backbencher.

3) Because he and his 16 or more non-TP Republicans would have considerable bargaining power with the Democrats, so he would be able to pursue a right-of-center (but not TP crazy) agenda.

To my mind, the real issue sticking point would be 2015.  Is there any way that the coalition I'm proposing enables Boehner to retain the Speakership after the 2014 midterms?  Obviously, if the Democrats take the House, then no, but that was going to be true no matter what--and Boehner might think that a government shutdown and the financial chaos from a default would make it more likely that the Republicans lose  control of the House in 2014.  But does Boehner retain the Speakership if the Republicans maintain control of the House?

Maybe.  Under the deal I'm envisioning, the Democrats agree that if the Republicans retain control in 2014, then the Democrats will join the non-TP Republicans in supporting Boehner for Speaker, so long as Democrats plus non-TP Republicans make up a majority of the body.

So, how about it?  Can this deal be put together?  I'll leave that out there as a suggestion for Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Pelosi.