The vote for House speaker is the kind of government procedure that Americans often ignore, but yesterday’s highly unusual votes have important implications for the future of the Republican Party and how it will govern.
On their first day in the majority, House Republicans couldn’t agree on who will lead them. Representative Kevin McCarthy has sought for years to become speaker, but some members of his party’s far-right faction refused to back him. It was the first time in 100 years that the House failed to elect a speaker on the first ballot, and lawmakers adjourned after three ballots without making a choice. The Democratic House leader, Hakeem Jeffries, even received more votes than McCarthy in all three rounds of voting.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right lawmaker who has become a close ally of McCarthy’s, accused her fellow hard-liners of “playing Russian roulette with our hard-earned Republican majority.” Bill Huizenga, another McCarthy supporter, asked his colleagues, “You guys aren’t interested in governing?”
Part of McCarthy’s problem is that his party holds a narrow margin in the House, with 222 seats to Democrats’ 212. So he requires support from Republicans’ right-wing flank to reach the majority he needs to be speaker. But that is only part of the story.
Republicans also don’t agree on what the party is and what it should stand for: Should it continue down the path that Trump began when he won the Republican nomination for president in 2016? Or should the party moderate and embrace more compromise to consolidate power?
“There are a number of lawmakers in this group who have never liked McCarthy and have never trusted him,” said my colleague Catie Edmondson, who covers Congress. “They see him as an extension of the establishment in D.C. that they want to tear down.”
The answers to these questions will help shape how Republicans will govern — whether they will stick to an uncompromising version of Trumpism or adopt more moderate views to win over more voters. “Regardless of the outcome, the votes have already shown there is a powerful group of right-wing lawmakers who are not going to be afraid to throw their weight around,” Catie said.
Today’s newsletter will look at the potential consequences for Republicans and the country.
Trumpism or not
The Republican fracture in the House is the latest example of a broader debate within the party: Should Republicans fully embrace Trumpism?
McCarthy has sworn allegiance to Trump, who has called him “my Kevin.” But while McCarthy has courted far-right members, he takes a more pragmatic view of politics than much of the party’s far right. He believes that for Republicans to accomplish anything, they have to nominate more moderate candidates who can win in swing districts. And to pass major bills, Republicans may occasionally have to compromise.
McCarthy’s Republican opponents take a more hard-line approach. Many do not believe in compromising with politicians who do not believe in Trumpism. They would like to oust Trump critics from the party. And they don’t trust McCarthy to carry out that vision.
These ideological divides animate many of the debates over who should be the next speaker. They are also driving other debates within the party, including over who should be the party’s presidential nominee in 2024.
In party politics, extreme flanks frequently butt heads with more moderate figures. What’s unusual about modern-day far-right lawmakers is their willingness to reject compromise and take on their own leaders. They effectively evicted the past two Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan. McCarthy himself had to withdraw from the speaker race in 2015 after a right-wing revolt, giving way for Ryan’s bid.
Since then, McCarthy has made overtures to ultraconservatives to shore up their support. One example: Before yesterday’s vote, he announced that he would allow just five lawmakers to call a vote at any time to oust the speaker. The move was a shift from his previous stance opposing a snap vote altogether, but it still fell short of the view of the party’s hard-liners, who said such a vote should require only one lawmaker proposing it.
The concession was not enough for those ultraconservatives, who still see McCarthy as too moderate. The right-wing Club for Growth released a statement on Monday that suggested it opposed McCarthy’s bid for speaker unless he met specific demands. It criticized House Republican super PAC spending in primaries, which McCarthy has leveraged to boost more moderate candidates.
Because Republicans don’t control the Senate or White House, their infighting in the House may not lead to immediate, broader consequences.
But House Republicans do have some things they want to get done and need a speaker for, particularly staffing House committees to investigate the Biden administration. A protracted debate over who should lead the House is already slowing down those inquiries.
And eventually, a divided House majority could lead to more government shutdowns and economic crises if Republicans can’t secure the votes for must-pass bills.
At the very least, the situation is a preview of Republicans’ struggles to move on from the 2020 election.
McCarthy lost support as the balloting continued. Nineteen Republicans opposed him during the first and second votes, and 20 during the third.
The Republican defectors coalesced around Jim Jordan, a hard-right congressman from Ohio who supports McCarthy.
Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert are among those opposing McCarthy. Their demands include limits on spending and a vote on term limits for members of Congress.
George Santos, who made false claims about his background, spent his first day in Congress shunned by his Republican colleagues.
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