Coalition government: How Republicans may keep their slim House majority, for now

One of the best things about being speaker of the House is that you meet with foreign dignitaries.

Of course, one of the worst things about being speaker of the House is that you meet with foreign dignitaries.

Such was the case when House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., huddled at the Capitol recently with British Foreign Secretary and former Prime Minister David Cameron. Their session came just moments after former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., announced he was departing Congress at the end of the year. The House unceremoniously bounced McCarthy from the Speaker’s suite in October. McCarthy’s removal was an unprecedented move in American governance. A maneuver reminiscent of a European parliamentary system rather than the House of Representatives.

Something which David Cameron might know about.

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Cameron became the youngest British Prime Minister in nearly two centuries in 2010. But he left office the day after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, via Brexit, in 2016.

“I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination,” said Cameron, anticipating major political blowback.

Johnson inherited a thin majority when he assumed the Speakership. It grew leaner just as Johnson met with Cameron.

“There are some very tricky issues to deal with,” Cameron whispered to Johnson as they appeared in the Speaker’s Office before the congressional press corps for a photo op.

“Yes there are,” replied Johnson. “We’re navigating them as best we can at the moment. I have a three-vote majority, and we just got some announcements today that it’s even smaller than that.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” remarked Cameron. “Well, my first government, I didn’t have the majority, so I had to have a coalition.”

“I know you can relate,” countered Johnson.

After Gordon Brown stepped down as British Prime Minister in 2010, Cameron assumed office. He encountered a “hung” parliament. It was the first such impasse in British politics since the mid-1970s. As a result, Cameron quickly formed a “coalition government” between the Tories and Liberal Democrats. Not Labour.

“Coalitions” generally don’t work in the American Congress. And certainly not in this environment.

“The Republican extremism is out of control. Extreme MAGA Republicans have shown zero interest in solving problems on behalf of everyday Americans,” blasted House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.

Considering the congressional arithmetic, one wonders if there might be merit in what Cameron mentioned to Johnson. Johnson presides over a tiny majority. But it’s tenuous. There are more Republicans than Democrats in the House, 220 to 213. But Johnson — nor his predecessor — had operational control of the House.

The majority is expected to shrivel further in the coming weeks — even after the resignation of McCarthy and the expulsion of former Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y.

“We are a very slim majority,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., just after McCarthy announced his departure. “I still can’t believe we had a vote to expel one of our own members when we knew things like this was (sic) coming. I think this is poor planning. It should have been handled better.”

Some of McCarthy’s allies were still smarting from his ouster.

“Big screw up,” said Rep. John Duarte, R-Calif. “Just completely inane behavior.”

Yours truly confronted House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn., in a Capitol stairwell seconds after word of McCarthy’s exit broke.

“I’m disappointed. But happy for him,” said Emmer. “That’s a personal choice. I’d like to have him around.”

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So, the GOP majority dwindles. That’s amid other expected retirements. FOX is told to expect a slate of retirement announcements early next year.

There’s a reason so many people are sprinting for the exits in the House.

“The evolution of this institution is lumpy,” said House Financial Services Committee Chairman Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who is retiring at the end of his term in January 2025. “We have good years. We’ve got bad years. We’ve had horrible Congresses. And wonderful Congresses. You have meaningful policymaking. And then you have the utter depths of stupidity.”

McHenry served as a McCarthy lieutenant. And it’s no surprise that after 2024, McHenry might put this year among the annals of “horrible Congresses” and “utter depths of stupidity.” 

But there’s concern that people like McCarthy and McHenry — bona fide legislators who can actually cut a deal and avoid a crisis (see the two flirtations with a government shutdown this fall and a near calamity with the debt ceiling in the spring) — won’t be around anymore. 

Like McHenry, Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., was another McCarthy lieutenant. He served at the forefront of delicate negotiations surrounding the debt ceiling and government funding. Graves says it pains him to see other members like Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, retire at the end of his term. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, is leaving over the winter to become the president of Youngstown State University.

There’s worry about a brain drain and who may be the last person standing as veteran legislators depart Capitol Hill.

“It leaves the people that led this dishonest charge with more power, with a higher percentage of people here. And again, very concerning trajectory for the House,” said Graves. “It’s really tempting to follow. But at the same time, I think that the obligation to make sure that the House goes on the right track, to make sure that this country doesn’t go south, this is really important. And that’s what’s keeping me here.”

U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)

U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), joined by fellow Republican lawmakers, holds a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. McCarthy spoke after the House passed the Parents Bill of Rights Act, 213-208, sending the bill to the Senate. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Perhaps that’s why someone like McHenry says that the essence of Congress “ebbs and flows.” Capitol Hill may be at an “ebb” right now. But a decision by someone like Graves to stay gives him hope.

“This institution rejuvenates itself,” opined McHenry. “And it will be better over time because the American people demand it.”

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That may be down the road. But right now, some Republicans wonder if they can maintain their narrow majority for the rest of the Congress — to say nothing of 2025.

The McCarthy resignation and Santos expulsion drops the majority by two seats. The Johnson retirement is offset by the pending retirement of Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., over the winter. But what happens if Democrats flip the Santos seat in a special election? What if someone dies?

George Santos

Representative George Santos, a Republican from New York, during a news conference outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, US, on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. Santos faces the most serious threat yet to his short and tumultuous tenure in Congress, as two competing resolutions to oust him from the House of Representations got put on a fast track Tuesday. (Annabelle Gordon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

You get the idea.

The Senate has switched control in the middle of a Congress before. The last time was 2001. But the House has never changed hands midstream.

It’s doubtful such a scenario could happen. In fact, FOX was told that some Republicans who want to jump may specifically remain in Congress just to help preserve the GOP majority for the time being. In other worse, which Republican wants to be the one who retires and awards Democrats with the key to the castle?

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Republicans may be in control of the House for now. But the only time the House approved something major is when there’s been a coalition of Democrats and Republicans voting to avert government shutdowns, suspending the debt ceiling and even expelling George Santos.

David Cameron may be on to something about a coalition government. Republicans may be in charge of the House with raw numbers. But it’s only been effective this year when a bipartisan coalition works together.

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