Sunday, October 1, 2023

Kevin McCarthy’s failed bid for House speakership, explained

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For the first time in a century, the House of Representatives failed to elect a speaker in the first ballot on Tuesday. Despite winning the majority, Republican Kevin McCarthy collected only 203 votes, leaving him with 15 less than the absolute majority needed to win.

The California Republican faced an uprising from the far-right members of his conference who issued a series of interlocking demands that blended the political, the procedural and the personal. While the Democrats remained united and voted for their leader, Hakeem Jeffries, the Republican dissidents split their votes. Ten voted for Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), who ran as a stalking horse adversary against McCarthy in an internal GOP conference vote in November. Nine cast their ballots for candidates like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL).

The rebels were members of the House Freedom Caucus, many of whom were loyal supporters of Donald Trump and supporters of an uncompromising form of conservative politics. While some had roots in a Tea Party brand conservatism, such as Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), many were MAGA bombers who have risen to political prominence more recently, such as Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO). However, not all of the roughly three dozen House Freedom Caucus members opposed McCarthy. Some, such as Representatives Majorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Jordan, have been vocal supporters.

On the second ballot, the rebels consolidated around Jordan, despite the Ohio Republican giving a speech nominating McCarthy. All 19 anti-McCarthy Republicans voted for Jordan, while all Democrats remained united around Jeffries, and McCarthy’s supporters backed the California Republican. Margins remained virtually unchanged on the third ballot, with Representative Byron Donalds (R-FL) voting for Jordan after endorsing McCarthy on the first two ballots. This set the stage for a political impasse unparalleled in modern history.

What do McCarthy’s opponents want?

The short answer is less power for McCarthy and more power for the right wing of the House Republican Conference. Part of their demands include efforts to weaken the office of speaker in general and allow rank-and-file members of the House — and rank-and-file members of the House GOP in particular — to have more influence over legislation. Speakers of both parties have increasingly centralized authority in their own hands in recent years. This has resulted in members having less opportunity to introduce amendments, most major legislation being negotiated by leadership in both parties, and being put to the vote in a handful of comprehensive bills, such as the 2022 social spending bill Democrats called the Inflation Reduction Act.

They also want to increase their influence over McCarthy. A major point of contention was a procedural issue called the “motion to vacate”, which allows for an up or down vote on whether the position of speaker should be declared vacant and a new vote held. This was used by Republican rebels in 2015 to take out then Speaker John Boehner. At the time, any individual member could force a vote on this issue. Boehner then presided over a fractious House GOP conference, albeit with a much larger majority than the Republicans now have.

Under House Democrats, House rules were changed so that only party leaders could introduce the motion. McCarthy’s critics want to restore this precedent. With Republicans holding a nominal majority of five in the House, the motion to remove the threat functions like a sword hanging over each speaker. It means that only a handful of Republicans would have the power to oust McCarthy from the speakership at any given time. Needless to say, McCarthy was absolutely against this. However, a recent offer he made to win over critics was to lower the threshold for an eviction motion to five. In other words, five members would have to jointly file the motion to force a vote.

But more than that, they also want to shape the GOP agenda with hard-right members on influential committees and guaranteed votes on priorities such as term limits, a balanced budget and border security. From their perspective, past Republican Congresses have failed to hold Democrats accountable. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) told reporters before the vote: “Our position is that if Kevin McCarthy is the Speaker of the House, and we are unable to ensure that there is oomph behind the agenda and energy behind our oversight, [then not much else matters].” Gaetz continued, “I’m not here to participate in some puppet show where we pass a bunch of messaging bills, send them to the Senate, watch them die, don’t use leverage, and don’t hold the Biden administration accountable. ”

What does everyone else think?

Most mainstream Republicans are not happy. Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) spoke to reporters about McCarthy’s critics before the vote on Tuesday: “[I]It was all about checking the commissions and fundamentally trying to put people in positions where they can raise more money. This has nothing to do with improving our country.” She described those who wanted to vote against the Republican leader as “the radical 2 percent.” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) expressed frustration that this could delay Republicans from getting their agenda started as well. “You have to get out of the gate really fast in that first quarter to have an effect…so there’s no time to lose now.”

What happens now?

Speaking to reporters before the vote, McCarthy said, “I hold the record for longest floor speech ever. I have no problem getting a record for most votes [held in a speaker election].” The record stands at 133 ballots, cast over two months in 1856 to elect a new speaker. As of now, with so many votes for someone else to swing his way, it looks like McCarthy has a shot at surpassing that distinction as well.

Update, Jan. 3, 4:55 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with the result of the third ballot.


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