The U.S. House could take some lessons from the New Mexico Senate when it comes to finding their way out of the Speakership crisis that is currently paralyzing government in D.C. Not today’s New Mexico Senate, of course. It has no leadership crisis. But the more evenly divided New Mexico Senate that existed in the 1980s and especially in 2001. With 42 members, it takes 22 votes from all Senators to become President Pro Tempore—the leader of the Senate. Granted, the leader of the Senate has less power than the Speaker. But he or she can largely determine committee chairs and members who can delay or advance important bills.
In 1985, the parties, and the votes for Pro Tem were evenly divided 21 to 21, with 21 for Democratic Senator Manny Aragon and 21 for Republican Senator Les Houston. After numerous votes, the fellow Albuquerque senators proposed a joint presidency, a novel, but sensible solution. The New Mexico Supreme Court turned them down. Later, Aragon became Pro Tem, through a coalition composed of 21 Republicans and four Democrats. Republicans put a Democrat in office.
The time I remember best, since I was there, was in 2001 when three dissident Democratic Senators, tired of Manny Aragon’s style of leadership, revolted, voted against him on the floor and denied him the majority in a Senate that was divided—18 Republicans to 24, with one (Democratic) absence. Furious negotiations followed. Despite a bid from Sen. Joe Carraro (R) for the three Democratic votes, Richard Romero (D) was elected Pro Tem, with 18 Republican votes and three Democratic ones. An informal, bipartisan coalition had been formed. The Dems didn’t like it, but we survived.
Politics often involves using an unexpected opening to go for a previously unreachable goal. Both Aragon and Romero went for it…and won, with unexpected allies. Is coalition government, maybe in a different form, completely impossible in the U.S. House? Imagine this: After weeks and weeks of stalemates in the Republican Conference, a few brave Republicans talk with moderate Democrats, and ask for their votes for a Republican Speaker who might agree to a few concessions—perhaps rule changes that would acknowledge the Republican majority,but allow at least some business to take place. What if? Are Republicans not even allowed to think it? Are there no profiles in courage who would step up, ala Liz Cheney?
Times have changed.
For partisans in the majority, it’s heresy to even think about talking to Democrats. Sure, there’s a problem-solvers caucus, but they haven’t solved much recently, since one party basically doesn’t want government to work. It has staked its future on hot email blasts to the base rather than behind-the-scenes conversations. And, despite the obvious peril of losing its slim majority, it has an institutional edge created in state legislatures, 28 of which are controlled by Republicans. So many districts have been gerrymandered by state legislators to protect incumbents, whether they be Republicans or Democrats.
Most congresspeople run in safe districts, facing real opposition only in primaries, usually from candidates who are more fringe than they are. The process increases the partisan divide so radically that there’s no longer any use for candidates to use the old campaign saw that they can work with all sides. The result is a fixed, antagonistic map. Even without the extreme MAGA rhetoric, it is a recipe for gridlock.
Still, aren’t there any “profiles in courage” among 221 Republicans? In my experience, legislators, particularly senators, jealously guarded their own institution from outside interference, whether it came from the executive, the courts or the other chamber. Yet here, the former President is calling the shots, even suggesting at one point that he be appointed temporary Speaker. And the majority of the conference is going along with it! For Republicans, there is no longer pride in being a leader—only in being a follower.
Dede Feldman represented District 13 in the New Mexico state Senate from 1997 to 2012. She is also the author of “Ten More Doors: Politics and the Path to Change,” “Another Way Forward: Grassroots Solutions from New Mexico” and “Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens.”