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Meet the next U.S. House speaker…Michigan’s Fred Upton?

fred upton
Longtime U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, who retired from Congress this week, said he’s amenable to serving as House speaker if the chamber can’t find another consensus choice. (Courtesy of Congressman Fred Upton’s office)
  • Republicans struggled Tuesday to select a U.S. House speaker, after far-right conservatives balked at Kevin McCarthy
  • Fred Upton of Michigan retired this week, but said he would be willing to assume the speaker’s post
  • Former Michigan Congressman Justin Amash said he wants the job, too

LANSING — Former U.S. Rep. Fred Upton officially retired this week, but the moderate Michigan Republican is now a long-shot candidate for another job in Congress: U.S. House Speaker. 

Upton's name has emerged as a potential bipartisan consensus pick to resolve an ongoing feud among Republicans, who are taking over the majority in the House but on Tuesday failed to elect a speaker in three separate votes. (The House is set to reconvene at noon Wednesday to continue voting.)  

Related:

Hard-line conservatives led by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida refused to support U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, who was the first House speaker nominee in 100 years to fail to win the gavel on the first vote.

While former President Donald Trump is urging GOP holdouts to back McCarthy, at least two lawmakers have raised the possibility of crossing the aisle to select a moderate speaker like Upton in hopes of avoiding two years of partisan gridlock.

Upton called the idea "intriguing" and told The Detroit News he isn't ruling it out despite declining to seek re-election amid redistricting and opposition from Trump, who Upton voted to impeach for inciting riots at the U.S. Capitol.

Former Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, an independent who left the GOP in 2019 before declining to seek re-election in 2020, is also actively promoting himself as a potential candidate who could appeal across party lines. 

How can Upton and Amash be in the mix? What’s likely to happen next? Here’s what we know: 

Can a former member of Congress even serve as speaker?

Short answer: Yes. 

The U.S. Constitution directs House members to select a speaker, but it doesn't require the speaker to actually be a sitting member of Congress. Neither do any federal laws. 

As the House Historian noted in 2015, the speaker "has always been a House member" but is not required to be. 

That's why Trump supporters have even occasionally floated the possibility of the former president taking the job, which he has not shown interest in amid his 2024 campaign to return to the White House. 

Who's talking about Upton?

U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, a moderate Democrat from California, told CNN on Tuesday that House Republicans should consider a "coalition government" and said he'd already talked to Upton about the possibility.

Prior to his retirement, Upton had been the longest serving member of Michigan’s congressional delegation and had made friends across the political aisle. He had a reputation for congeniality and at times broke from the GOP to back bipartisan bills, like the 2022 Chips  and Science Act designed to boost domestic semiconductor manufacturing. 

U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, told CNN that if McCarthy bows out of the speaker race, he might nominate an outgoing lawmaker to fill the post. He declined to say whether he was referring to Upton.

Ohio governor and Congressman John Kasich — floated as a potential compromise pick himself — has also urged a consensus pick but did not mention Upton or anyone else by name. 

"A block of House Republicans should get together with Democrats to pick a speaker to run a coalition government, which will moderate the House and marginalize the extremists," Kasich tweeted Tuesday

What kind of ‘coalition government’ are they pushing?

Republicans are poised to hold a 222-213 majority this term once new members are officially sworn in, which means they could only lose four votes to muster majorities on any particular issue. 

That narrow margin is why a small faction of hardline conservatives — 19 and later 20 out of 222 Republicans — have been able to, so far, deny McCarthy the speaker post. And it's why the divided caucus could also have trouble passing bills. 

Upton would offer at least a chance at bipartisan cooperation. And he's already offering Democrats a major olive branch: He says he'd ensure that all House committees contain an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. 

"That's the only way we're going to get anything done for the next two years," Upton told The News. "The Republican majority is too slim, and we're too divided, to get significant legislation passed."

How could Upton win the race?

First, Upton would have to be nominated by a member of Congress. Then, his most likely path to the speakership — which is still unlikely — would require cooperation by Democrats. 

If all 213 Democrats voted for Upton, he'd need only five Republicans to back him in order to win a simple majority in Congress and become the next speaker. 

"I would need Democrats," Upton told The News. "I could get a significant number of Republicans."

Beyond Congressman Costa, Democrats do not appear to be seriously entertaining the possibility of an Upton speakership at this point. In all three speaker votes on Tuesday, they voted unanimously for House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York. 

What about Amash?

Amash, a Trump antagonist who represented the Grand Rapids area in Congress for a decade before deciding not to seek re-election in 2020, is even less likely than Upton to become the next House speaker. 

But he is openly campaigning for the post on Twitter, positioning himself as a political independent who could win Democratic votes but still earn respect from a majority of Republicans he previously served with. 

If chosen, Amash said he would focus on fixing the "broken legislative process" and let lawmakers propose legislative amendments on the House floor. 

"I’m not a current member of Congress, but I do know what’s at stake," Amash wrote in one tweet. "I’d gladly serve as speaker of the House for one term to show people the kind of legislative body we can have if someone at the top actually cares about involving every representative in the work of legislating."

How have Michiganders in Congress voted so far?

Members of Michigan's incoming congressional delegation have so far voted along party lines, with all six Republicans backing McCarthy for speaker and all seven Democrats voting for Jeffries.  

The deadlock has frustrated U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Zealand Republican who spoke out against the far-right GOP holdouts on Tuesday when he voted for McCarthy, publicly stating it was "because I'm interested in governing." 

Conservatives refusing to back McCarthy are just interested in "TV time or social media likes," Huizenga later told WWMT News, predicting the roll call votes on who becomes the next speaker could continue for a couple more days. 

Some representatives "can't get to yes because of their brand," he said.

Democrats have criticized the GOP stalemate, which has delayed the official swearing in of new members elected last fall.

“It is my sincere hope that Members of Congress will be sworn in today,” U.S. Rep,. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, tweeted Wednesday, “so that the U.S. House of Representatives can begin addressing the real issues facing our country—not just have everyone witness continued political dysfunction & chaos that is bad for our country.”

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