A handful of Republicans may have just pushed the US to a new political cliff.
Just this past week, the concern was of a possible shutdown of the federal government, in case Congress, America's bicameral legislature, failed to fund it – as is its prerogative. That scenario was averted at the last minute and there was relief when Kevin McCarthy, then speaker of the House of Representatives, swung a 45-day funding extension, due to expire on November 17.
But as can happen in politics, the situation quickly devolved. Merely days after US President Joe Biden, a Democrat, signed the spending bill, Mr McCarthy, a Republican, has been ousted from his position. Even though his departure wasn't entirely unexpected, this creates a situation similar to last week: if the newly elected Speaker of the Republican-controlled House toes a harder line than Mr McCarthy did with the Biden White House, a government shutdown could once again be imminent.
Such a scenario would affect government payouts, as well as American livelihoods and businesses. The US economy has made an impressive post-pandemic recovery. But instead of keeping that momentum going, members of the Republican far right have allowed their party interests to overtake national ones. This phenomenon is not new or even uniquely American. Elsewhere too in the world, particularly in Europe, the far right appears to be gradually hollowing out the space held by traditional conservatives.
But even apart from the turmoil in Congress that Tuesday's turn of events could unleash, America does not come across well – already with a former president, Donald Trump, in court for a civil fraud trial, and the son of the current President, Hunter Biden, facing his own court battle related to gun charges.
The country may be about to bear the brunt of Mr McCarthy having crossed paths with some of the more extreme members in his party, who claimed that he worked too closely with Democrats. The new Speaker is set to be elected in a week, but there is no telling how long that process might take. Mr McCarthy's own route to speakership in January took 15 rounds of voting.
All of this is unprecedented. The paradox is especially stark as the former speaker was voted out, by members of both parties, for his attempts to build bipartisan consensus and keep the government running. Now, the result might yet be a shutdown – if, indeed, there is no consensus under a new speaker.
Such a situation would adversely affect Congress’s ability to fund government programmes, not to mention the direct bearing it could have on the dollar, loans, international businesses and the global economy.
America’s allies may well find the world's only global superpower becoming less reliable, particularly as this could affect the conflict in Ukraine and several of the American-led geopolitical initiatives around the globe. A big debate in the House was indeed about support and spending on Ukraine, of which many Republicans have become weary. Since the war began, Washington has directed more than $75 billion in assistance to Kyiv, including humanitarian, financial and military aid.
However, despite disagreements on issues like Ukraine aid, effective governance depends so much on hard-won consensus, which members of Congress, from both parties, appear to have eschewed in recent years. "My fear is the institution fell today," Mr McCarthy said.
Whoever succeeds him will need to find a way to rebuild the spirit of accord among fellow members, irrespective of political differences and affiliations, and speed up the process of putting the House, and American politics, back in order.