Battle For Speaker and Strong Union Progress

Heather Cox Richardson

In a Washington Post op-ed today, House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) offered House Republicans a “path to a better place” than the “dysfunction and rancor they have allowed to engulf the House.” Democrats have repeatedly offered both in public and in private to enter into a bipartisan governing coalition, he wrote, but under former House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Republicans have “categorically rejected making changes to the rules [in order] to…encourage bipartisan governance and undermine the ability of extremists to hold Congress hostage.”  

Jeffries offered to work with willing Republicans “to reform the rules of the House in a manner that permits us to govern in a pragmatic fashion.” Stating up front his willingness to negotiate, Jeffries wrote that the House “should be restructured to promote governance by consensus and facilitate up-or-down votes on bills that have strong bipartisan support.” This would stop a few extremist Republicans from preventing “common-sense legislation from ever seeing the light of day.” 

Jeffries called for “traditional Republicans” to “break with the MAGA extremism that has poisoned the House of Representatives since the violent insurrection on Jan[uary] 6, 2021, and its aftermath.”

“House Democrats remain committed to a bipartisan path forward,” he wrote, but “we simply need Republican partners willing to break with MAGA extremism, reform the highly partisan House rules that were adopted at the beginning of this Congress and join us in finding common good for the people.” 

Jeffries is reaching out at a delicate moment for Republicans. While the minority leader’s appeal to what is best for the country is an important reminder of what is at stake here, there are also political currents running under the surface of the speaker crisis. The speaker vote will force Republicans to go on the record either for or against former president Trump, a declaration most have so far been able to avoid. 

There is enormous pressure from pro-Trump MAGA Republicans to stick with the former president and elect his chosen candidate, Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), as House speaker. But Jordan is a very close ally of Trump’s and can be expected to demand an end to investigations into the former president in exchange for doing even the most basic business—Trump, after all, demanded a government shutdown until the cases against him were abandoned. Throwing the speakership to him will mean facing the 2024 election with a fully committed Trump party and government dysfunction as the Republicans’ main argument for why voters should back them.  

That might play well in the gerrymandered districts of the extremists, but there are 18 Republicans who won election in districts President Biden won in 2020, and they will not want to run on a ticket dominated by Trump and Jordan. But a vote for the other declared candidate, Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA), means being on record against Trump and for a man who once described himself as Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke “without the baggage.” 

The other calculation those wavering Republican members of Congress must make is what they expect for the future. A number of the state maps that gave Republicans their slim House majority have been found unconstitutional and are now being redrawn in ways that suggest the Democrats might well retake the House in 2024. If that happens, having forged a working relationship with the Democrats would be far more useful than standing with the hard right. 

It would take as few as five Republican votes to elect Jeffries speaker, which is an unlikely outcome, but it would also take just a few Democrats to vote present and lower the number needed to enable the Republicans to elect someone more moderate than their current option. Jeffries might well be signaling that the Democrats are willing to enable that outcome, but only for a Republican who is not a bomb thrower. 

Republicans who are not committed to Trump may also be paying attention to what increasingly feels like a shift in the country’s popular tide. Today’s news provided more evidence that Biden’s approach to the economy—using the government to invest in ordinary Americans—is working far better than the Republicans’ approach of slashing the government to enable capitalists to organize the economy ever did. 

Today the Bureau of Labor Statistics released yet another very strong jobs report showing that the U.S. economy added 336,000 jobs in September, almost twice what economists had predicted. The unemployment rate held steady at 3.8%. The biggest gains were in leisure and hospitality and in government. Average hourly wages went up 4.2% over the past 12 months; more than the inflation rate of 3.4%. The bureau also revised its employment statistics for July and August upward, showing that the employment in those months was up 199,000 more than the gains already reported.  

The country’s shift away from concentrating wealth upward also showed today in positive movement toward a historic settlement between the United Auto Workers and automakers. UAW president Shawn Fain announced that General Motors has agreed to include workers at plants making batteries for electric vehicles in the UAW’s national labor agreement. 

While the UAW wanted—and appears to be obtaining—higher wages, its leaders were especially concerned about what the transition to EVs would do to workers. Fain said that automakers had been planning to phase out the engine and transmission plants worked by union laborers and replace those jobs with lower-wage jobs in non-union battery plants. Until now, automakers had said it would be “impossible” to permit the battery plants to be covered by the union umbrella.

Fain called the agreement a “transformative win” and, in light of that agreement, announced that the UAW will not expand its strike into GM’s most profitable plant in Arlington, Texas. Fain said he expects that Ford and Stellantis, which includes Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram, will agree to the same deal, and labor scholars agree.

Trump visited a non-union plant in this dispute, where he attacked the transition to EVs as job killers for autoworkers. This new agreement makes it unlikely that autoworkers will back Trump over this issue. 

Biden, on the other hand, weighed in on the fight by joining the UAW picket line.

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