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After four dramatic days of negotiations and 15 rounds of voting, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) won a pyrrhic victory early Saturday morning when the U.S. House of Representatives elected him as Speaker.
Unequivocally, McCarthy sold his soul to the far-right in his quest to become the leader of the legislative branch. He offered concessions that give these hardliners veto power over his speakership and placement in key leadership roles, leaving McCarthy with no real authority.
One of McCarthy’s most striking capitulations to the group of Republican extremists involves a rule change that would allow just one member of Congress to force a floor vote to remove him as Speaker. This is the same tool that conservatives used to oust former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) from the position in 2015, and moderates now rightly worry that this concession leaves McCarthy highly vulnerable.
On top of that, McCarthy pledged to place House Freedom Caucus members on the influential Rules Committee and in key chairmanships. This move emboldens and elevates these far-right members to top positions of power that they will assuredly use to pursue politically-motivated and illegitimate investigations into President Joe Biden and his administration, which will be used as a basis for impeachment.
This process has further weakened The Republican Party’s brand, leaving voters with the impression that the GOP is extreme and inept. As incompetent as Biden and the Democratic Party have seemed at times, this episode — taken together with the spectacle of the performance, or lack thereof, of many Republican candidates in the midterm elections — underscores the risks to the Republican Party’s viability going forward.
Furthermore, this week’s dramatics also emphasize why both parties have deeply negative ratings, and why the American people are effectively saying: “a plague on both your Houses.” The disarray, dysfunction and disunity that Americans have seen from House Republicans this week have also been present on the Democratic side at times — and regrettably, is a harbinger of what we can expect once the 118th Congress finally gets underway.
The idea that the Republican House majority could advance a substantive agenda — which, to be sure, was already unlikely — has officially been left behind, as has the prospect of McCarthy working with the new House Minority Leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), in a bipartisan fashion.
Over the next few months, we can expect few — if any — substantive accomplishments from the House, as McCarthy now lacks both the actual power and the political will to pursue compromises with moderate Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.
While this week’s embarrassing fiasco sealed McCarthy’s fate as Speaker, in one way or another, he would have found himself beholden to the far-right, given the narrowness of the Republican House majority and his record of kowtowing to extremists when it has suited his political interests.
It goes without saying that it would be more beneficial for the country and for The Republican Party’s 2024 political fortunes — given their historically poor performance in the midterm elections — if McCarthy was willing and able to govern in a bipartisan fashion.
Yet, in order to retain his position, McCarthy will now be forced on day one to back efforts by the House Freedom Caucus to investigate and impeach Joe Biden and members of his administration.
Likely, House Republicans’ primary focus will be on trying to prove wrongdoing by Biden with respect to his purported role in his son, Hunter Biden’s, foreign business dealings — allegations that have repeatedly been disproven.
From there, they will likely turn to impeach Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas for the southern border crisis, as well as Attorney General Merrick Garland for the Department of Justice’s investigations into possible criminal wrongdoing by former President Donald Trump.
The far-right could also turn their ire to the botched withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, as well as COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the eviction moratorium and student debt cancellation.
Unencumbered by a sense of duty or morality, the newly-empowered far-right members in the House will do whatever it takes to undermine the Biden presidency — though ironically, these actions will likely end up weakening the Republican Party to an even greater extent.
If Republicans go down the impeachment path, Democrats will be able to weaponize this decision against them in 2024 by attacking the GOP for putting partisanship over progress, as we did in the 1998 midterms with great success.
It is notable that the other top Republican in Congress, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has worked to keep his caucus above the fray by dismissing the idea that the Senate would take up articles of impeachment. Further, as House Republicans devolved into chaos this week, McConnell appeared with President Biden to tout bipartisan progress on infrastructure.
For his part, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has also expressed optimism that the House and Senate will ultimately be able to work together to govern over the next two years.
“There are a good number of Republicans in the Senate and the House who are not MAGA Republicans … It is my intention to reach out to them and see how can we work in a bipartisan way,” Schumer said recently.
Regrettably, the Senate Majority Leader’s sense of hopefulness will almost certainly prove to be misguided once House Republicans — led by Kevin McCarthy in what Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) described as a figurative “straightjacket” of the far-right’s making — are sworn in.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”
House Freedom Caucus
Politics of the United States
Speaker of the House