Marshal Josip Broz Tito led the former Yugoslavia for decades before dying in 1980. Balkan scholars argue Tito unified the ethnically diverse country. After his passing, his country held together for 11 years – before rupturing amid bloody civil wars in 1991.
Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and current Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., don’t have a lot in common with Marshal Tito. But there is at least one relevant parallel. Not much unifies House Republicans these days. But for a while, Boehner, and lately, Ryan, served as a tenuous adhesive to cement unity.
Republicans were frantic last fall when Boehner abruptly retired. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was on track to succeed Boehner until his bid imploded barely before it started. House Republicans were on the verge of balkanization had Ryan not stepped into the void as speaker.
There’s a reason the Balkans are, well, called the Balkans.
It sometimes takes a charismatic figure to ally diverse factions. Boehner was that leader for a while among House GOPers. And last fall, Ryan was certainly the only person on whom House Republicans could agree.
Without Ryan, House Republicans are balkanized. Questions now percolate as to whether the Wisconsin Republican can command the votes to continue as speaker should the GOP retain control of the House, albeit with a diminished majority next year.
Republicans may have postponed a grisly, internecine, leadership brawl last fall when Ryan reluctantly took the job -- after initially declining. Without a figure like Ryan to claim the gavel, House Republicans may have devolved into chaos as they scrounged for a leader.
On Wednesday, key members of the House Freedom Caucus huddled in the Washington, D.C., apartment of Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., to discuss tactics in upcoming, internal GOP leadership elections scheduled for November 15. Some Freedom Caucus members and conservatives want to depose Ryan. But no one can match the votes Ryan could muster in a contested race. So does the Freedom Caucus field a candidate?
“Please do,” muttered one Ryan loyalist. “Then they’ll be exposed for how little support they have.”
It all comes down to mathematics: 236 House Republicans voted on the House floor to propel Ryan to the speaker’s suite last October. Nine GOPers defected from Ryan.
Not all Republicans admire the tactics Ryan used to approve an interim spending bill to avoid a government shutdown in late September. The House okayed the plan 342-85 – 170 GOPers voted yea. But 75 Republicans voted no. The government’s funded through early December. A December gambit by Ryan to avoid a shutdown which mirrors September’s effort could only further infuriate Republicans who oppose Ryan.
Don’t forget issues Ryan now has with some pro-Donald Trump lawmakers. If the GOP nominee loses, will Trump himself and other Trump allies excoriate Ryan? Could that make it tougher for some Republicans to support Ryan if their phones melt down with anti-Ryan, Trump-driven vitriol?
The general election falls next week followed by the internal GOP Conference election on November 15. House Republicans are expected to lose seats. A net loss of 12 Republicans is a good night for the GOP. A bad night is 20 or more losses. Either way, the House Republican Conference will likely be smaller next year. In the GOP Conference vote, a successful candidate for speaker only needs half of the membership plus one. But in January, the speaker must secure 218 votes on the floor, an absolute majority of the entire House.
Let’s say House Republicans lose 15 seats next week. House Republicans hold 246 seats with one vacancy. The vacant seat will likely return to Republican hands after the election. Thus, the “real” number of House Republicans is 247. A 15 seat GOP loss puts the conference at 232 Republican seats. Then, factor in defectors. If that number is nine like last fall, Ryan may only record 223 votes for speaker. That’s five more than needed to win. But it’s a thin margin.
Now consider the chances for Republicans to lose more than 15 seats – to say nothing of more than nine defections. If past is prologue, Ryan or any GOP candidate for speaker could be short of the 218 vote benchmark to win.
Would Ryan even attempt to stay on if he’s not guaranteed a win? Could a “no confidence” vote damage a future Ryan presidential bid? This explains why some Republicans discreetly laid groundwork for potential leadership campaigns should the dominoes fall.
Possible Ryan successors? Is Kevin McCarthy viable after his aborted speaker run last year? Could House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., gain traction? There would be chatter about Jason Chaffetz or Mike Conaway. Some invoked House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who served as speaker of the Utah House. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, commands applause from House Republicans for efforts to reform the tax code for the first time in 30 years.
It took a while for Yugoslavia to break up. Outside forces simply delayed the battle. The same could be true for House Republicans. A fratricidal altercation awaited the GOP in 2015 had Ryan not run for speaker. And if Ryan faces trouble, we may discover that the party only postponed that family melee.
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.