early and often

The Many Ways MAGA Republicans Threaten Kevin McCarthy

McCarthy’s trials are just beginning. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

With just two U.S. House races (one in California, one in Colorado) unresolved, it’s clear there will be somewhere between 220 and 222 Republicans when the chamber meets for the 118th Congress in January — probably at least 221 since Representative Lauren Boebert’s Democratic opponent has conceded, even though the contest is undergoing a recount. Two hundred eighteen House members represent a majority. So Republicans will enjoy, if that’s the right word, a margin of control even smaller than the one Democrats struggled with over the past two years.

As virtually everyone understood the minute Republicans’ dreams of a big House landslide vanished, the fragile GOP majority created an ideal situation for the MAGA bravos associated with the House Freedom Caucus, whose primary goal in political life is to use every available bit of leverage to force less rigidly ideological House Republicans to toe their line despite its frequent unpopularity. The loser in the proposition was 2022’s theoretically biggest winner, putative House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, whose history of being tormented and even thwarted by the HFC explains his routinely craven behavior in the face of right-wing demands. Said behavior earned him an easy victory in the first postelection skirmish among many to come: a 188-31 win over HFC member Andy Biggs of Arizona in the November 15 GOP caucus vote to choose a nominee for Speaker.

But now McCarthy needs a majority of the entire House to formally become Speaker in January, and though defections on the usually routine party-line vote to give the House its powerful leader are considered highly heretical, the tiny margin of control gives that extreme measure more life than it would otherwise possess. That’s certainly well understood by McCarthy because his inability to secure 218 votes after the HFC deposed John Boehner as Speaker in 2015 led to Paul Ryan taking the position instead.

According to the Washington Post, there are four HFC members (Biggs, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Bob Good of Virginia, and Ralph Norman of South Carolina) who are “hard no” votes on McCarthy as Speaker as well as six other House Republicans who have made enough discouraging noises to justify concerns they will bail on the Californian. It’s important to understand, though, that the vote in January won’t be an up-or-down referendum on McCarthy but a competition in which McCarthy, the new House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, and theoretically other candidates will bid for votes. Since HFC types aren’t about to vote for a Democrat, it’s likely “hell no” votes will be expressed as abstentions that lower the threshold for a majority. The real threat to McCarthy holding the gavel would be the emergence of a Republican “unity candidate” (which is what Ryan represented in 2015) whom the entire caucus could support. So McCarthy has to keep an eye on the mostly likely fallback candidate, the current House Minority Whip, Steve Scalise.

Still, the frontal assault on McCarthy’s election as Speaker isn’t the only power play the HFC can muster. It can also make a newly elected Speaker’s tenure a living hell from the get-go by denying votes for must-pass legislation. In fact, that’s how the HFC essentially drove Boehner into retirement, by incessantly demanding brinkmanship over funding measures necessary to avoid government shutdowns. With the House being the only Republican power base in Washington for the next two years, McCarthy (or whoever serves as Speaker) will be the target of constant demands to place the highest possible price on Republican cooperation in measures Democrats need to keep the country functioning and/or meet its obligations (e.g., by a debt-limit increase House Republicans are already threatening to make conditional on deeply unpopular cuts in safety-net spending).

So, short of McCarthy’s actual scalp, what is it these rebels want?

What you hear about most often are changes in the rules governing House Republicans that will increase future right-wing leverage over the GOP’s legislative leadership and the party caucus as a whole. Ideally, the HFC would like to preserve a 365-day-a-year option of evicting a Speaker via a “motion to vacate the chair,” the closest thing Congress has to the vote of no confidence common in parliamentary systems. But in the same House GOP caucus meeting that nominated McCarthy for the speakership, Republicans gave themselves a collective veto over such maneuvers, which means MAGA folk cannot in the future get together with House Democrats to take the gavel away.

Other HFC-backed rule changes are very much in play, though, as Roll Call recently reported:

Among their proposals are ones that would place more members unaffiliated with the speaker onto the House Republican Steering Committee (which decides the committees that GOP members can join), let the entire Republican Conference pick who sits on the powerful Rules Committee (rather than the speaker) and reimplement a “majority of the majority” rule that would prevent any bills coming to the floor that didn’t have the support of most Republicans …

Other proposals include a prohibition on earmarks; a ban on suspending the rules, a fast-track procedure, on bills with price tags over $100 million; and a requirement to pass spending bills before the fiscal year begins, or else no other legislation can be heard on the floor.

McCarthy has already loudly championed one rule change that could make life difficult for him: an abolition of proxy voting in the House, meaning he would forever be dragging Republican members to the floor for close votes — of which there will be many — while adding to the possibility of intraparty mischief at his expense. He also long ago strengthened the HFC by promising to restore the committee assignments and other privileges denied by the House to Marjorie Taylor Greene and other MAGA ultras.

But beyond rule changes or any formal power shift from the Speaker to the rank and file and its righter-than-thou factions, what House GOP rebels most want is a commitment to absolute and unremitting partisan warfare over the next two years, minimizing if not completely abandoning any accommodations for the Democrats who control the White House and the Senate. It’s scorched earth the HFC desires above all, and McCarthy can surely give them that, as I explained after the GOP clinched House control:

What will House Republicans do for two years? Lay the groundwork for 2024 through a combination of (a) “messaging” bills designed to put potentially vulnerable Democrats on the spot while promoting the GOP’s emerging 2024 talking points and (b) aggressive use of the House’s investigatory and oversight powers to go down every imaginable conspiracy-theory rabbit hole involving Democrats past and present, with particular emphasis on Hillary ClintonHunter Biden, and their “Deep State” allies. It will make the Benghazi! histrionics Republicans pursued last time they controlled the House look like calm and judicious lawmaking.

In the end, what Republicans can most easily agree upon is to oppose the Democrats going into another momentous presidential cycle with the entire federal government on the line. And when it comes to loud and fractious obstructionism, the House Freedom Caucus and its MAGA allies everywhere will likely set new standards of demonic excellence.

The Many Ways MAGA Republicans Threaten Kevin McCarthy