Far-right extremists are marking the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection by attempting another coup at the US Capitol. And desperate to become the next House speaker, Representative Kevin McCarthy is capitulating to their most outrageous demands.
McCarthy, who has failed nine times (as of Thursday afternoon) to secure the 218 votes needed to lead the House’s narrow Republican majority, is willing to cave to the 20 Republicans standing between him and his political dream. He has reportedly even agreed to a proposal that would allow a single member to call for a vote to oust the speaker.
That would reduce the speaker, one of this nation’s most important power brokers, to a figurehead. That’s not a leader. That’s a hostage. Fearful of being forced out, McCarthy would be controlled by the radical whims of those some Republicans have dubbed “the chaos caucus” within their party. Is this nation ready for a House led by Representatives Matt Gaetz of Florida, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, and Paul Gosar of Arizona?
Democracy is messy, but it’s not supposed to be a circus. Yet here we are. Out of his deference to Donald Trump, McCarthy spent years acquiescing to the same clowns now blocking him from becoming speaker.
In the meantime, half of Congress is on a self-inflicted lockdown. Without a speaker, House members can’t be sworn in. Bills can’t be debated or passed. Investigations are frozen. Unable to get security clearances, lawmakers don’t have access to intelligence briefings.
“We have a third, one of our three branches of government, offline right now,” Republican Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania told CNN. “That is a very dangerous thing for our country, and it cannot continue much longer.”
Even the line of succession has been affected. Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the new president pro tempore of the Senate, has gotten a promotion to second in the line to the presidency — at least until there’s a new House speaker.
McCarthy may be too busy working the phones to care that he’s also working America’s nerves. When asked about the speakership stalemate, President Biden called it “embarrassing.” Then again, McCarthy has embarrassed himself so many times, he’s probably immune to it.
After each defeat on the House floor, McCarthy’s been acting like he’s Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” getting up every time George Kennedy knocks him down. But he’s really Wile E. Coyote doing the same thing, expecting a different result, and falling off the cliff over and over again. If McCarthy never becomes speaker, he’s already a shoo-in for 2023′s Most Humiliated Person in America.
If it all ends with the speakership in his grasp, McCarthy will probably believe it’s all been worth it. Never mind that his many concessions — including more members of the extremist Freedom Caucus on the powerful Rules Committee and appointing a select committee to investigate the Justice Department — amount to negotiating with his party’s terrorists.
This is what McCarthy has gotten for his groveling and belief that Trump’s endorsement would be all he needed to get the gavel. But the former president has lost his sway over some of his most devoted acolytes. In recent days, Boebert said Trump “needs to tell Kevin McCarthy that, sir, you do not have the votes and it’s time to withdraw.”
Now the tail is wagging the dog. The chaos caucus has learned they can still wreak havoc with Trumpism while discarding Trump. It’s no surprise that most of those opposing McCarthy, who has the overwhelming support of House Republicans, also voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results. They don’t believe in majority rule.
“You have 20 people demanding that 201 surrender to them unconditionally,” Republican Representative Trent Kelly of Mississippi said after McCarthy was defeated for the sixth time. “Well, I will not surrender unconditionally.”
Neither will McCarthy, who says he won’t withdraw his speakership bid. Those who oppose him have remained just as stalwart. It’s a stalemate that has shoved the nation’s business not just to a back burner, but off the stove top entirely.
McCarthy is a craven shapeshifter willing to contort himself to fit whatever ideology benefits his goals. He knew Trump lost in 2020 but still voted against certifying the presidential election results. He allowed the dregs of his party to run amok mostly unchallenged, assuming it would garner their loyalty. Now McCarthy is so willing to neuter the power of the speakership, he wants to curry support from a gang of “Never Kevins.”
Days of dysfunction have shown what Republican control of the House will inflict on this country. It’s a recipe for turmoil, and we’re getting a hint of its bitter taste. McCarthy isn’t just surrendering to extremists. He’s willing to make democracy a casualty of his ambitions.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.