Cantor for Speaker? (With a Hat Tip to John O'Sullivan)
Even as they gave President Obama the budget he wanted yesterday, House Republicans had the chance to make a stand, demonstrating that they stood for an entirely different, and much more sensible, agenda. They threw the chance away. When the new Congress is sworn in later this month, should it elect a new Speaker?
When I interviewed him for Uncommon Knowledge just after the election, John O'Sullivan argued that Republicans should let the Democrats have the budget they want -- but make clear that the budget was just that, a Democratic budget, by abstaining from the vote. "Let the Democrats own it," John very reasonably said.
The one problem with John's argument, I thought, and still think: Abstaining would haved placed Republicans in an untenable position. Their constituents elect members of the House to vote "yea" or "nay," after all, and not merely "present."
Yesterday, though, Republicans in the House had the chance to enact something like John O'Sullivan's strategy while still casting definite votes for or against the budget legislation: Speaker Boehner could have counted noses very carefully, ensuring that the legislation passed by only two votes. (Since an even number of Representatives voted, enacting the measure by a single vote would have proven impossible.) Instead of twisting so many arms that 85 Republicans voted "yea," in other words, he could have singled out just 41 Republicans to do so--and he may even have been able to ensure that nearly all of those votes came from the 36 defeated or retiring Republicans who will be leaving the house at the end of this session.
Instead of a budget measure that passed comfortably, 257 to 167, with the support of more than a third of House Republicans, the Speaker could have produced a bill that passed by the narrowest possible margin, 213 to 211, with less than a fifth of Republicans voting in favor--and he could have made certain that those who voted in favor held an immediate press conference to say that they hated the bill even so. This result would have proven imperfect, goodness knows. But it would have enabled the Republicans to claim, quite credibly, that they were standing on principle.
The number two man in the House, Majority Whip Eric Cantor, seems to have sensed this need for the House GOP to demonstrate a certain principled defiance--he opposed the budget legislation in conference, then voted against it on the floor. (Note that Paul Ryan joined Speaker Boehner in voting for the measure.)
Cantor for Speaker?