As of Wednesday night, the 118th Congress still has no sworn-in members of the House of Representatives because the new Republican majority has so far failed to elect a speaker. Indeed, California Representative-elect Kevin McCarthy’s bid to lead the chamber has seemingly thrown his caucus into disarray, sending the speaker’s election to multiple ballots for the first time in a century. He failed to garner a majority in three votes on Tuesday. And after the representatives-elect again rejected McCarthy in multiple ballots on Wednesday, there’s no telling how or when this saga will end.
The reason McCarthy has struggled to secure the votes he needs is because the handful of hard-right Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus don’t think he’s sufficiently committed to overhauling the way Congress works. And though McCarthy has tried negotiating with them, promising to meet some of their demands — including changing rules to make it easier for members to oust a speaker — they’re still holding out.
While there certainly is value in having a lively debate on the House floor — visible dissent and messy leadership elections are simply part of the democratic process — it’s important for the House to wrap up its search for a new speaker soon because until it does it can’t get any government business done. But that shouldn’t come at the expense of good governance, and McCarthy shouldn’t bend to the will of the most extreme members of his party in his quest to ascend to the House’s top job. The changes the GOP rebels are calling for would make Congress even more dysfunctional than it already is.
Other Republicans realize as much; when he was asked who he had voted for during one of Tuesday’s votes, Representative-elect Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican, replied: “Because I’m interested in governing — Kevin McCarthy.”
The holdouts, though, show no sign of backing down. Indeed, the number of Republicans not supporting McCarthy has actually gone up since the first ballot (Democrats have remained united in favor of their leader, Hakeem Jeffries of New York). The reality is that McCarthy’s path to the speakership would be easier if he takes the more moderate approach. He could, for example, give Democrats some concessions, including a promise to not hold the debt ceiling hostage to fights about funding for certain programs, and they could repay him by not showing up for the speaker vote, lowering the threshold for what constitutes a majority vote. But so far, McCarthy, not exactly known to be a moderate himself, has promised his party that its majority will be used for what essentially amounts to an obstructionist agenda.
The problem for McCarthy is that no matter how far he is willing to go, none of it seems to be enough for the ultraconservative branch of his party. Even though he promised to thoroughly investigate the Biden administration, for example, the holdouts don’t believe he will go far enough in pursuing what in the end would likely be nothing more than sham investigations. And if he’s willing to cave to all of their demands, then his speakership would be incredibly fragile, meaning he’d likely be beholden to the Freedom Caucus for his entire tenure.
So as he tries to salvage his dream of becoming speaker, it’s worth asking why McCarthy wants to be the top Republican anyway. What is the legislative agenda that he actually hopes to get to work on? What ambition does he have for the country other than having a speaker named Kevin McCarthy?
By the looks of it, this charade appears to be nothing more than a desperate pursuit of power for power’s sake. But it’s not too late for McCarthy to prove his skeptics wrong by striking a deal with Democrats that would, at the very least, allow Congress to actually govern. Otherwise, he should step aside and give room for a consensus candidate to emerge.
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