I want to look, for a moment, at the situation with Kevin McCarthy as a Republican voter might. Your party had a disappointing midterm election, it’s true, but you still captured a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, and that gives you an important piece of power. You should be able to put a serious check on the legislative ambitions of the Biden administration. You should be able to conduct oversight hearings and investigations. You ought to be able to restrict spending and even zero it out for some programs you find particularly objectionable.
If you’re being realistic, you know there are some limits to how much you can accomplish. After all, you have to cut deals with Chuck Schumer’s U.S. Senate in order to fund the government. You don’t control any of the government agencies and you don’t get to direct our country’s foreign policy. Still, the representatives you just sent to Washington DC are not there to make life easier for the Democrats. That’s understood.
The problem becomes clear when you look at the demands of the 20 anti-McCarthy holdouts and what they’re demanding. I know there is a lot of complaint that their demands aren’t clear or are ever-shifting, but in their floor nominating speeches they’ve hit on basically four themes. The first is their objection to funding for Ukraine. The second is their objection to the size of the omnibus spending bill that passed at the end of the last Congress. The third is their desire not to see the debt ceiling extended. And the fourth is their desire to hold investigations, including of Big Tech and social media.
Let’s set aside the investigations for a moment and focus on the other three items.
In May, the House passed a big funding bill for Ukraine by a 368-57 margin. If we look at only the Republican votes, the bill was approved by a 149-57 margin in the House. Thirty nine of 50 Republican senators approved the bill, too. So, it’s perfectly clear that there is a very large bipartisan consensus that the U.S. should help Ukraine defend itself against Russian efforts to annex huge swaths of their country. Still, the next Speaker of the House will not be able to approve more support for Ukraine if they’re forced to rely solely on Republican votes. They will need to work with the Democrats if they want to succeed.
When it comes to the omnibus, there was still bipartisan consensus. Eighteen Republican senators approved the 2022 year-end spending bill (providing a filibuster-proof majority), along with 9 Republican members of the House. To be sure, the bill wasn’t what the Republicans would have crafted or negotiated if they’d been in control of one or both houses of Congress, but passing it avoided a government shutdown. Of course, the majority of Republican lawmakers opposed the bill, but whatever concessions might have been wrung out of a government shutdown would have been minor at best, and not worth the disruption and wrath of the people. Prior government shutdowns have never produced the hoped for results. Now that the GOP has a majority in the House, they can cut a better deal with the Biden administration without having to cause any shutdowns, but the McCarthy holdouts will never allow that to happen unless the Speaker relies on Democratic votes.
As for refusing the extend the debt ceiling, that’s something that simply cannot happen. Even the credible threat of it happening has in the past hurt the United States’ credit rating. There will never be a true majority in Congress for such a self-destructive course, and any party majority caucus that pursues such a path will face a serious internal revolt. Yet, the McCarthy holdouts are going to force the next Speaker to rely on Democratic votes to pay our bills on time.
Here’s the thing. Realistically, this next Congress is going to fund Ukraine, pass appropriations bills for the next fiscal year and extend the debt ceiling. The reason is that there are going to be substantial bipartisan majorities in favor of these actions. But there will never be enough Republican votes for the Speaker to do any of these things without Democratic help.
These aren’t optional actions. Especially the government funding and debt financing are core duties of Congress. So, whichever collection of votes get these things done will form the de facto majority in the House. When a Republican Speaker goes to the Democrats for the votes they need, the anti-McCarthy holdouts will initiate an attempt to remove the Speaker from their position. This is the kind of behavior that convinced Speaker John Boehner to retire.
There’s no magic trick that can be pulled to force the massive downsizing of government during a Democratic presidency, especially when the Democrats also control the Senate. Anyone who is promising that is either delusional or lying. So, what’s going to happen is that the next Speaker will do what they have to do to keep America’s government creditworthy and operational, and then they’ll be ripped apart for it by their own caucus. It’s even possible that they’ll be successfully deposed if the Democrats aren’t inclined to save them.
Now, a Republican Party with more modest and realistic expectations could avoid this drama. But the failure to agree on a Speaker is all the indication you need to understand the true state of affairs. There will be a functional majority in the this House of Representatives and it will be strongly bipartisan. The logical thing to do is elect a Speaker who represents not the caucus of Republicans but the caucus that will vote to fund Ukraine and our government and pay our debts.
As Sahil Kapur reports for NBC News, House Republican lawmakers who understand reality are still highly reluctant to form a bipartisan coalition to elect a Speaker. That’s because Republican voters like you won’t understand why they’re doing it. You’ll be angry, in many ways with ample justification, and you’ll support any primary challenger to them who comes along promising not to break bread with Democrats.
But in the end, the functional majority caucus in the House is more important than any caucus on paper. And right now the Republicans can’t even produce a majority caucus on paper. If McCarthy makes all these concessions about Ukraine and the debt ceiling and government spending in order to win the support of his critics, he will either break these promises or he’ll lead the country to financial ruin or he’ll be kicked out by his moderates. This country will pay its bills, one way or the other, even if it is wrecked for being late in doing so.
The best option for the country is to bypass all these risks by cutting the anti-McCarthy holdouts out of the deal from the outset. The next Speaker should be elected not on a partisan basis but on the basis of their willingness to fund Ukraine, pay our debts and avoid government shutdowns. The Speaker should be a Republican who agrees to these things. Everything else is negotiable, including who chairs the committees and makes up the leadership team.
The problem is simple. For the same reason the GOP can’t choose a Speaker on their own, any eventual Speaker will not be able to run the House on purely partisan basis. So, let’s not wait until we’ve defaulted on our debts to face reality. The Republicans won a majority but not a functional one. The government has to function.