Speaker of the Whole House

'Congress under construction' works as a metaphor, too.

Photographer: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Now that the race for speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has officially turned from muddled to chaotic, centrist Republicans -- yes, they still exist -- need to press their advantage. And Democrats might even want to help them.

QuickTake Speaker of the House

Last month, outgoing Speaker John Boehner hoped to end what he called "leadership turmoil" in the Republican Party when he announced he was quitting. The favorite to succeed him, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, dropped out of the race on Thursday after concluding that he was "not the one to unify the party." A unifying figure may yet emerge, but that needn't happen for the House to function effectively.

Party unity in a legislature is prized by partisans, of course. It's less so by the American people, who overwhelmingly want a legislature that works. The leadership void in the House presents a rare opportunity for members of both parties who value bipartisanship to assert themselves.

The Tea Party-aligned House Freedom Caucus helped force McCarthy out of the race by uniting behind a renegade, Daniel Webster of Florida. Their victory leaves Republicans with a choice: They can line up behind Webster, or they can sue for peace and seek a compromise candidate.

Webster, who arrived in Congress in 2010 after having served as majority leader of the Florida Senate and speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, certainly has the experience to be speaker. But it's uncertain whether he'll prove acceptable to non-Tea-Party Republicans. Even if he is, if the caucus's more moderate members hope to play a meaningful role under the next speaker, now is the time to flex their collective muscle.

The Republican Main Street Partnership, which bills itself as being "aligned with the governing wing of the Republican Party," has more than 65 members, making it larger than the Freedom Caucus. If it can deliver all its votes, it can extract promises or concessions from the next speaker. They needn't be extreme -- merely committing to keep the government open would be progress. And if moderate Republicans wanted to up the ante, they could enlist Democrats to vote for their candidate.

Democrats have thus far said they intend to say out of the speaker's race. In doing so, they are abiding by the tradition that the majority party chooses the speaker. But they are also heeding a rule of gamesmanship attributed to Napoleon: When your enemy is in the process of destroying himself, stay out of his way. Yet that approach risks leaving the House with a speaker who is even more hostile to bipartisan compromise than either Boehner or McCarthy.

If centrist Republicans can unite around a candidate -- a big if -- they have an opportunity to play kingmaker, and Democrats ought to be willing to be pawns (or even rooks) in that process. Yes, given the hardened battle lines on Capitol Hill, this is not likely. But it would be welcomed by a public hungry for a more cooperative Congress.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.