Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Kevin McCarthy’s Speakership and the Undiscovered Country

David Super

      John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and Nancy Pelosi all seem rather happy as former Speakers of the House.  Yet Kevin McCarthy seems fiercely determined not to join their number.  The question remains what price he is willing to pay to keep his gavel.  We will find out soon. 

     Because Speaker McCarthy lacks deeply-held beliefs of any kind, he naturally is not a true believer of the Freedom Caucus’s Trumpian orthodoxy.  Freedom Caucus Members from the beginning have been divided over whether he is a useful soothing public face for their agenda or a betrayer in waiting.  Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the most McCarthy-skeptical Members from the beginning, is now trying to lay the public groundwork for a vote to oust the Speaker.  Speaker McCarthy may have thought he would reap gratitude for announcing that he was opening an impeachment inquiry into President Hunter Biden – er, I mean, President Joe Biden – but he was greeted with scorn from Freedom Caucus and adjacent Members, who complained that this should have happened long ago and in any event was no substitute for enforcing their hard line on radical domestic appropriations cuts. 

     The Speaker is becoming increasingly boxed-in, and the more he tries to stall, the more perilous his predicament becomes.  Yes, he may have bought temporary peace on this issue within his caucus by ordering an impeachment inquiry, but at a heavy long-term cost to his party.  Now that this inquiry has started, it can only end in one of three ways, each of which will harm Republicans. 

     First, the Freedom Caucus and its allies can bring articles of impeachment to the floor and prevail.  That will require all but four Republicans in vulnerable seats to vote “yes” (all but three if Rep. George Santos has taken a plea deal by then).  Voting for an evidence-free impeachment would shred the credibility of those in competitive districts who like to run as “moderates”.  It also would likely result in a prompt Senate trial after which many Senate Republicans will feel they have to vote “no”.  (Senators tend to be more risk-averse than House Members, and they are not protected by gerrymandering.)  Far from tarring the President, this would loudly exonerate him in the eyes of many as the campaign is heating up.  It also would invite awkward comparisons to the progress of former President Trump’s cases. 

     Second, the Freedom Caucus can bring articles of impeachment to the floor and fail.  That likely would cause a major rupture in the House Republican Caucus, destroying its effectiveness and sparking several divisive and expensive primaries of Members already struggling to fend off Democrats.  (House Minority Leader Jeffries will bring the popcorn.)  House Republicans will surely lose seats as a result, and, again, President Biden will powerfully be exonerated. 

     And third, vulnerable House Republicans may succeed in keeping articles of impeachment from moving forward.  It is not clear how they would accomplish this.  The usual route for vulnerable Members is to speak with caucus leadership.  Such private appeals prompted Speaker Pelosi to firmly oppose bringing articles of impeachment against President Trump over his role in Russian interference with the 2016 election.  But Speaker McCarthy has so little credibility or clout that few far-right Members likely would listen to him.  And, yet again, bottling up impeachment in committee after launching a formal inquiry would give President Biden a powerful exoneration.  Perhaps their best chance would be to launch long-shot litigation against the Administration for the release of sensitive-but-irrelevant documents and blame their inaction on (wholly predictable) litigation delays. 

     Yet the impeachment inquiry is not the most serious or most imminent threat to the Speaker’s gavel.  That is the fast-approaching government shutdown on October 1.  Here he may not have much chance to stall:  the Freedom Caucus has vociferously nixed postponing the shutdown with a stop-gap “continuing resolution” unless they receive policy concessions in advance that are non-starters with Democrats.  In particular, they are demanding that any federal or state prosecutor acting against former President Trump be defunded.  So it is hard to see how the shutdown’s start is delayed beyond October 1. 

     The Speaker may have even bigger problems within the Republican Party on appropriations than he does on impeachment.  He acceded to the Freedom Caucus’s demands to abandon the spending levels he agreed upon with President Biden in June, and the House Appropriations Committee has been moving bills whose spending levels would devastate numerous popular programs and that contain extreme, highly controversial policy riders.  It remains unclear how many of these can muster 218 votes on the House floor; attempts to move various appropriations bills in August had to be scrapped for lack of Republican support. 

     More significantly, Senate Republicans are hanging their House colleagues out to dry.  Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee have harmoniously crafted a complete set of twelve bipartisan bills, some of which they reported out unanimously.  Speaker McCarthy will have considerable difficulty portraying a government shutdown as a crusade against out-of-control Democratic spending if simply passing the Senate’s bipartisan bills is an obvious option – all the more so if the House cannot pass any version of some of the appropriations bills.  Although Republican appropriators have taken the lead in this effort, it would not be possible without the tacit support of Senate Minority Leader McConnell.  Et tu, Mitch?

     So where does this all end?  The House Freedom Caucus has created a situation in which Speaker McCarthy can only move legislation with Democratic support.  And to get any Democratic support for appropriations bills, he will have to revert to the spending levels he agreed upon in June – which already require serious cuts – and drop the far-right policy riders.  That will cause him to lose Republicans in droves, which in turn will force him to win the great majority of the Democratic Caucus, as happened in June on the debt limit deal.  But getting all those Democratic votes will require still-more concessions.

     That appropriations legislation will infuriate the Freedom Caucus.  If they then do not move to vacate the Speaker’s chair after actions they have so clearly cast a betrayal, they will never have credibility to threaten to oust Speaker McCarthy. 

     A motion to vacate his chair will present Speaker McCarthy will an unpalatable choice.  He cannot possibly prevent at least five Republicans – and likely many more – from voting to remove him.  The only way he could survive is if Democrats abstain in droves.  And inducing Democrats to do that will surely require even more concessions, likely in private.  It also will mean that, after nine months of owing his gavel to the indulgence of the House Freedom Caucus, he will henceforth owe his position to the indulgence of the House Democratic Caucus. 

     At that point, Representative McCarthy will have to decide whether he prefers to be a Republican speaker dependent on Democratic votes – novel federally although with occasional precedent in the states – or to join John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and Nancy Pelosi in an undiscovered country from whose bourn no Speaker returns.  Perhaps the prospect of surrendering his gavel will so puzzle his will that it will make him rather bear those ills he has than fly to others that he knows not of?


Older Posts
Newer Posts