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Speaker—Dare We Say It?—Jeffries? Here’s How It Could Happen

Sure, it’s a long, long shot. But in a House where the unprecedented keeps happening, who’s to rule out anything?

Hakeem Jeffries
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images
Hakeem Jeffries makes remarks before handing the gavel to Kevin McCarthy on January 7.

Speaker Hakeem Jeffries: three words that have many Democrats salivating on television and in the halls of the Capitol as House Republicans remain in total disarray. But is there really a path forward for the House minority leader to ascend to the speakership, or is it just a liberal pipe dream? Let’s dig in. First, some context.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives took the historic step of firing a sitting speaker for the first time in American history, using an obscure procedure called the motion to vacate. Kevin McCarthy and his team were devastated by his ousting. Many tears were shed, and petty vengeances were immediately plotted. “That was male fragility on display,” said Representative Sydney Kamlager-Dove, a Democrat from Los Angeles, of the many congressional temper tantrums in evidence during McCarthy’s firing.

For most Democrats, how McCarthy sealed his fate was obvious: The embattled former speaker put his faith in his party’s extremists, and they burned him. “It would have been easier for Kevin to build a coalition across the aisle with some of the Democrats, but he decided that he wanted to lean in to the far right,” said Jasmine Crockett, a first-term Democrat from Dallas. “And every time he leans in to the far right, they end up causing him problems.”

Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, ultimately did McCarthy in by entering a motion to vacate him, then calling on House Democrats to support the motion, which they ultimately did, resulting in McCarthy’s humiliating demise. In the days since, at least a half-dozen House Republicans have been floated to replace McCarthy, led by Majority Leader Steve Scalise and longtime Donald Trump (and Kevin McCarthy) pant-sniffer Jim Jordan.

But Democrats have a different idea. Yes—even though they are in the minority, they are talking about a possible Speaker Jeffries. “If this is a protracted process, the margins are so thin, I wouldn’t rule that out,” said Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, when asked if Democrats could pick up the Republican votes necessary to elect Jeffries as speaker. “I’d give it a slim chance today, but ask me again in four weeks if we haven’t elected a speaker.”

He makes an interesting point. The deadline to fund the government is November 17. Right now, there is no clear successor to McCarthy in the House GOP. It took 15 votes to elect McCarthy as speaker in January. There’s no telling how many votes it will take to replace him, now that he’s been fired.

“The ball is in their court,” said Representative Adriano Espaillat, a New York Democrat, of his Republican colleagues. “The dysfunction is on their side, and the American people are watching how MAGA Republicans handle the majority.”

Kamlager-Dove echoed Espaillat. “It’s not up to us to save them,” she said of the House GOP. “McCarthy gave up all of the tenets that would protect the institution of the House in order to become speaker. So he should not be surprised this was gonna happen. When you have no moral compass, when you are so desperate for the gavel that you will do and give away anything, what’d you expect was gonna happen?”

The New Republic asked 22 House Democrats who they will support for House speaker when Congress returns to Capitol Hill next week for votes. None waffled. All said Jeffries. “We encourage Republicans to vote for Hakeem,” said Representative Ritchie Torres, a New York Democrat, after the vote to fire McCarthy. “We will guarantee a more governable House than what we’ve seen.”

There are currently 433 House members—221 Republicans, 212 Democrats, and two vacancies. A successful speaker bid will likely need 217 votes, meaning that assuming no Democrats are absent (a big “if,” given the Covid cases that keep happening among members) and all Democrats vote for Jeffries, the New York Democrat will need five Republicans to support his bid.

Who could those Republicans be? There are more than you might think, at least in theory. The most obvious pickup opportunities are among the 18 GOP House members who represent districts where Joe Biden beat Donald Trump. In some of those districts, Biden walloped Trump: by 10, 11, 14, 16, 18 points. If you’re such a Republican, anticipating Trump at the top of your ticket again, you might think a bipartisan move like voting for a Democratic speaker makes sense. Of course, you’re guaranteeing yourself a primary and likely defeat. But maybe the prospect of a Speaker Jordan is enough to make you say the heck with it.

Next are the four Republicans who have announced that they will not seek reelection next year. They’re not exactly moderates, but they’d be out the door and suffer no blowback. They are Representatives Alex Mooney, Jim Banks, Victoria Spartz, and Dan Bishop. Other pickup opportunities could conceivably exist among the eight House GOP members who voted to vacate McCarthy, members like Representative Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican who told reporters before he voted to fire McCarthy that he expects to be punished for voting his conscience on the matter.

Representative Ken Buck is another pickup opportunity for Democrats. While the Colorado Republican has not formally announced that he will not run for reelection, he has floated the idea of leaving Congress to be a CNN analyst.

And then there’s Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who led the motion to vacate McCarthy. Rumors are already swirling about the Capitol that some of Gaetz’s GOP colleagues are plotting his downfall. He was named in 2021 in sex-trafficking allegations, a scandal for which Gaetz was never charged but his close associate Joel Greenberg was sentenced to 11 years in prison. At a bare minimum, Gaetz is likely to be expelled from the House GOP conference, making him a member without a party but who still has a vote to cast in the race for speaker.

So that’s 32 theoretical Republicans. If Democrats can seduce a handful of them to join their unified vote for Jeffries, then the New York Democrat could be the next House speaker. The way things are in the House these days, you can’t rule out anything.

But the question Democrats would have to reckon with is: At what cost? There is virtually no political alignment between the Republicans that could (at least in theory) be incentivized to support Jeffries and House Democrats. Remember, it doesn’t help Jeffries to pick up Gaetz or Burchett by promising austerity measures in the appropriations process—a top priority for Burchett and Buck, in particular—only to lose dozens of progressive caucus members who would surely find the concession to be an abhorrent nonstarter.

Plus, even if Jeffries were to ascend to the speakership, only the GOP majority can enter motions to vacate, a tool they would surely use again and again and again as a means to grind any legislative business Jeffries would hope to conduct to a grinding halt on the House floor.

Ultimately, a simple majority of members present is required to elect a House speaker. Democrats will vote for Jeffries to show a united front; but even completely present and united, they don’t have the votes to put him over the top. There’s very little that Jeffries can offer a handful of Republicans for their votes that wouldn’t alienate him from the necessary votes from his own caucus and shatter the unity that House Democratic leadership is so intent on demonstrating in a moment of total chaos on the GOP side of the aisle.

So for now, the most likely scenario is that, come next week, Jeffries will have more votes for speaker than any Republican but not enough to be elected, which means the best move for House Democrats is to bring popcorn to the floor and watch the MAGA bros running the House GOP destroy themselves in a political battle for speaker with no end in sight.