Republican rebels hit mute on Kevin McCarthy's speaker ambitions

Man who would be king of the House can't rally his own side. Expect more chaos in the coming two years

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What’s the difference between a stereo, a television and the US House of Representatives?

Stereos and TVs have speakers. The House just makes a lot of noise.

Sorry for the obvious joke, but it is hard not to laugh at the tragicomedy playing out in the lower chamber of Congress, where an increasingly dour Kevin McCarthy has been rejected eight times (and counting) by members of his own Republican Party in his quest to become House speaker.

It's a grim state of affairs for Mr McCarthy, whose ritualised national humiliation makes for pitiable viewing or scintillating schadenfreude, depending on one's politics.

But the real loser in all of this is the Republican Party, which once again has allowed its long-simmering civil war to burst to the fore, highlighting how a determined band of absolutists make it literally impossible for the party to govern.

Mr McCarthy spent the past four years as minority leader and has long assumed he would become the next speaker, replacing Nancy Pelosi after the Democrats lost their majority in last year’s midterm elections.

But it is now clear that a hard-core component of "Never Kevin" Republicans won't budge in their opposition to him, even as he buckles to their many demands and yields a string of concessions, including one that would empower any member of Congress to call for a confidence vote whenever they saw fit.

The Californian congressman's apparent Waterloo is being led by a rowdy group of about 20 Republicans, many of whom belong to the ultra-right House Freedom Caucus or who have pushed Donald Trump's lies that the 2020 presidential election was "stolen" from him, even though he lost to Joe Biden by seven million votes.

The burn-it-all-to-the-ground nihilists see Mr McCarthy as a creature of the "swamp", the fetid pool of status-quo pond life that usually governs according to established norms, and say the man who is now their majority leader is insufficiently conservative.

Among them are Lauren Boebert, an Islamophobe from Colorado, and Matt Gaetz, a die-hard Trump loyalist who went so far as to nominate the former president to be speaker on Thursday.

It matters little that they can't be sworn in as representatives and begin making laws until a speaker is selected. This is their moment in the spotlight and the prima donnas won't yield easily.

The Republicans have 222 seats compared to the Democrats, who have 212, though this will probably grow to 213 after a special election for a vacant House seat in a Democratic district of Virginia next month.

Shepherding legislation along a tight-rope majority like that would be excruciating for any speaker. With the gavel in Mr McCarthy's hand, it would be all but impossible.

The House Freedom Caucus's shenanigans this week show what the next two years of Republican majority in the House will look like: chaos, theatrics and failed legislative efforts.

It must all be bitterly ironic for Mr McCarthy, who has done everything he can to placate his party's fringe and its Trump base.

Just days after the January 6, 2021 assault on the US Capitol and democracy itself, Mr McCarthy said Mr Trump "bears responsibility" for the riots that other politicians have called an attempted coup.

He even told fellow Republican leaders that "I've had it with this guy", according to audio obtained by The New York Times.

Yet within weeks, Mr McCarthy flew down to Florida to swear obeisance to the former president.

Mr Trump and Mr McCarthy in Florida in 2018. Reuters

Mr Trump has called Mr McCarthy "My Kevin" and on Tuesday put out a caveated statement supporting him as speaker, saying he would do a "good job", or maybe even a "GREAT JOB".

Mr McCarthy's willingness to strike Faustian deals was on display again this week, as he surrendered to rebel demands that had once been red lines.

As of Thursday morning, he reportedly had agreed to make it easier for a speaker to be fired and signed off on giving some members of the House Freedom Caucus spots on the rules committee.

By giving any representative the opportunity to call a vote, at any time and on any day, on whether the speaker should remain, Mr McCarthy would be agreeing to make himself a hostage at any time. It's nuts.

It wasn't supposed to be like this for Mr McCarthy, who has spent a decade grooming himself for the speakership.

Back in 2010, he co-wrote a book called Young Guns with two other Republican leaders, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.

Seen by tea party populists as too pro-establishment, Mr Cantor lost his seat in a 2014 upset. Mr Ryan bowed out of politics in 2018.

Now, in the week that was supposed to be his crowning achievement, the last of the Young Guns must be wondering how many bullets he has left in the chamber.

Young Guns, co-authored by Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy in 2010
Published: January 05, 2023, 7:30 PM