Chaos in Republican House of Representatives

Heather Cox Richardson

Yesterday, eight extremist members of the Republican congressional conference demonstrated that they could stop their party, and the government, from functioning. Indeed, that’s about all those members have ever managed to do. Political scientist Lindsey Cormack noted on social media that Representatives Andy Biggs (R-AZ) and Nancy Mace (R-SC) have managed only to name a single facility each; Representatives Ken Buck (R-CO), Tim Burchett (R-TN), Eli Crane (R-AZ), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), and Matt Rosendale (R-MT) have each sponsored no successful bills; and Bob Good (R-VA) has sent one thing to the president, who vetoed it. 

They are not interested in governing; they are interested in stopping the government, apparently working with right-wing agitator Steve Bannon to sink the speakership of Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Indeed, the only two significant legislative achievements the Republicans have made since they took control of the House in January 2023 were raising the debt ceiling and passing a continuing resolution to fund the government for 45 days. In both of those cases, the measures passed because Democrats provided more votes for them than the Republicans did. 

The former House speaker was one of many Republicans who tried to turn this internal party debacle into the fault of the Democrats, although he apparently offered them no reason to come to his support and made it clear he would continue to boost the extremists. 

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memocommented: “The idea that D[emocrat]s should have bailed out McCarthy is a codicil of the larger logic of DC punditry in which R[epublican] bad behavior/destruction is assumed, a baseline like weather, and D[emocrat]s managing the consequences of that behavior is a given.” Journalist James Fallows agreed that this understanding “is so deeply engrained in mainstream coverage and ‘framing’ of DC that it doesn’t need to be said out loud.” 

Aaron Fritschner, the deputy chief of staff for Representative Don Beyer (D-VA), was more specific, calling the idea the Democrats were refusing to support McCarthy out of spite “silly nonsense.” He noted that on Saturday, the House was preparing to shut down when McCarthy sprung on the Democrats a vote on the continuing resolution the Democrats had never seen. “My immediate read was he wanted and expected us to vote against [it] so we would be blamed for a shutdown,” Fritschner wrote. The Democrats instead lined up behind it. 

Then, after it passed, McCarthy said to a reporter that the Democrats were to blame for the threatened shutdown in the first place. “People want us to give the guy credit for stopping a shutdown but it is still not clear to me right now sitting here writing this that he *intended* to do that,” Fritschner wrote. 

Meanwhile, Fritschner continued, McCarthy was making it clear that he would “steer us directly back into the crazy cuts and abortion restrictions, the Freedom Caucus setting the agenda, breaking his deal with Biden, and driving us towards a shutdown in November,” refusing to make any reassurances that he would try to work with Democrats. As Jake Sherman of Punchbowl News reported: “Mccarthys allies say they will NOT negotiate with democrats. Even as some house Dems privately say they want to help the California Republican.” 

“This came down to trust, and that’s the word I saw and heard from House Democrats more than any other word. We did not trust Kevin McCarthy and he gave us no reason to. He could have done so (and I suspect saved his gavel) through fairly simple actions. He chose not to do that,” Fritschner wrote. 

Adam Cancryn, Jennifer Haberkorn, Lara Seligman, and Sam Stein of Politico confirmed that both McCarthy’s allies and opponents found him untrustworthy, noting that when negotiating with President Joe Biden on “a particularly sensitive matter,” the speaker privately told allies that he found the president “sharp and substantive in their conversations” while in public he made fun of Biden’s age and mental abilities. That contradiction “left a deep impression on the White House,” the reporters said. 

But who will now be able to get the votes necessary to become House speaker? 

It seems reasonable to believe that the Democrats will continue to vote as a bloc for Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), leaving the Republicans back where they were in January, when it took them 15 ballots to agree on McCarthy. Now, though, they are even angrier at each other than they were then. “Frankly, one has to wonder whether the House is governable at all,” Representative Dusty Johnson (R-SD) told Andrew Solender of Axios

Two Republicans have thrown their hats into the ring: Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Both are significantly to the right of McCarthy, and both carry significant baggage. Jordan was involved in a major college molestation scandal and refused to answer a subpoena concerning his participation in the attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Scalise has described himself as like Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke “but without the baggage.”

Republicans from less extreme districts, including the 18 who represent districts Biden won in 2020, are not going to want to go before voters in 2024 with the kinds of voting records Jordan or Scalise would force on them. 

The fight over the speakership is unlikely to be quick, and there is urgent business to be done. Congress must fund the government—the continuing resolution that made Gaetz call for McCarthy’s ouster runs out shortly before Thanksgiving. Even more immediate is funding for Ukraine to help its military defend the country against Russia’s invasion. That funding is very popular with members of both parties in both the House and Senate, but Jordan has said he is against moving forward with that funding, believing the extremists’ wish list is more pressing. 

Today news broke that Ukrainian attacks have forced Russia to withdraw most of its Black Sea Fleet from occupied Crimea. This is a serious blow to Vladimir Putin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. It is an unfortunate time for the U.S. to back away from Ukraine funding, and legislators are urging the House to pass that funding quickly.

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