Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Jason Chaffetz and Greg Hughes are in Similar Situations

Interesting – some may say stunning – developments this week dealing with the often bare-knuckled battles of political power, both in the U.S. House and the Utah House.

And while one involves gaining powerful leadership positions, the other an enduring political issue, there are similarities – as I will now examine.

First, UtahPolicy political junkies no doubt know that Thursday noon U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., unexpectedly dropped out of the race to replace Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who said he’s ready to postpone his end-of-October resignation from the House to give the 247-member GOP caucus more time to consider who the new speaker should be.

Meanwhile, back in Utah, state House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, continues to insist that the controversial Medicaid expansion plan – dubbed Utah Access Plus – get all of the 38 votes needed for passage in the 75-member body from the 63-member House Republican caucus.

While disparate in their overall consequences and importance, the two GOP insider battles have things in common – mainly how does a relatively large group of Republicans decide an important issue.

And where does power flow in American democratic halls?

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, clearly threw a wrench in the gears of the GOP U.S. House when he announced he’d run against McCarthy last weekend.

But Chaffetz was right about this: McCarthy may have had the votes in the 247-member caucus to win a majority.

However, McCarthy wouldn’t have the votes on the floor of the U.S. House to get 218 – the number needed to win the speakership.

That’s because – as Chaffetz predicted – a bloc of around 50 archconservative Republicans WOULD NOT vote for McCarthy on the floor.

The Democrats would vote for their leader, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Ca. McCarthy would get most of the GOP votes. But he couldn’t reach 218.

So, McCarthy steps out of the race, with Chaffetz saying he’s still in.

But others say Chaffetz himself may never get to 218 within the 247-member U.S. House GOP caucus, so a new face may emerge over the next few weeks as U.S. House members fight internally over the Speakership post.

McCarthy told reporters that maybe he could get 220 speakership votes on the floor. But he added he couldn’t lead the GOP without a greater majority – with his party’s right wing always badgering him – one of the main reasons Boehner is quitting in the first place.

Hughes faces a similar question in Utah. (I’m not suggesting that Hughes is worrying about his speakership, and dealing with Utah Access Plus reflecting that concern. I’m just pointing out what could happen to Hughes next year as he faces UAP decisions.)

How does Hughes get a majority of his 63-member caucus to back Utah Access Plus – a Medicaid expansion program put together by GOP Gov. Gary Herbert; Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox; Hughes; Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy; House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville; and Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights.

Just as McCarthy needed 218 GOP votes to be U.S. House Speaker – and clearly not being able to get them – Hughes says he wants 38 votes, a majority, from his GOP caucus to pass Utah Access Plus.

If McCarthy could have somehow put together a few moderate-conservative Democratic votes to get him to 218, he would forever be weakened as speaker.

For he couldn’t get the support of his GOP caucus to move controversial legislation and budgets. He would always have to be seeking Democratic support – and making compromises with them to hold his speakership.

It is unworkable politically.

Hughes could face the same problem.

A majority of the Utah House GOP caucus is 32 – just over half of the 63-member Republican caucus.

But if Hughes accepted the 32 number – and then be willing to win with six Democratic votes for Utah Access Plus – this is what would happen:

— Those 32 GOP votes would include votes by the four House elected leaders – Hughes, Dunnigan; House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton; and House Assistant Majority Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville; and the two appointed members of leadership, Budget Chairman Dean Sanpei, R-Provo; and Budget Vice-Chairman Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace.

Thus Hughes et al. would be moving ahead with Utah Access Plus with ONLY 26 of the rank-and-file, non-leadership members of the 63-member House GOP caucus, or a minority of the non-leadership caucus.

That is untenable from a leadership, power-welding position.

And in the leadership elections following the 2016 general election, it would certainly open up the Hughes leadership team to challenges from others in the Utah House Republican caucus.

Hughes could find himself in the same spot as McCarthy – impossible to find a way to get all-GOP caucus votes to be re-elected speaker – in Hughes’ case because he went ahead with a controversial Obamacare-connected, new entitlement program without a majority of his GOP caucus behind him.

House Democrats are demanding that Hughes go ahead with a special session on Medicaid expansion this fall, even if he doesn’t have 38 votes for Utah Access Plus inside of his own GOP caucus.

The Democrats say they will supply the votes for the expansion if archconservatives in the House won’t step forward.

The 12-member Democratic caucus says if 26 Republicans stand with them, that will get the 38 votes needed for passage in the House.

But 26 Republicans, as I’ve just shown, leaves the Hughes leadership team short of a majority in the House Republican caucus.

And Hughes et al. in real trouble when Utah House Republican leadership elections come around in mid-November 2016.

The Utah House Republicans will meet in another closed caucus Oct. 13.

Maybe Hughes can come out of that meeting with 38 votes for Utah Access Plus.

But if he doesn’t, look for further compromise on the new Medicaid expansion plan – or if Herbert calls a special session on Utah Access Plus it is a roll of the dice for the governor.

It may end up that the Hughes leadership team votes against a plan that Hughes and Dunnigan themselves helped craft if most of the House Republican caucus ends up not supporting it.

Yes, leaders are supposed to lead.

But they also have to have the support of most of those behind their backs, if they don’t want to end up stabbed in the back by their own.