WASHINGTON ― As Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) struggles to get his caucus in line and name him House speaker, the spectacle is more than just a personal embarrassment for him. It’s a preview of how dysfunctional Congress may be in the next two years.
Whoever ultimately gets the speaker position will need to cobble together a functioning body that is willing to govern ― an exceedingly difficult task given that Republicans only hold a four-seat majority in the lower chamber. If the open warfare between conservatives, moderates and Trump loyalists this week is any sign, the GOP’s problems are only beginning.
“As hard as this is, this may be the easiest thing he does all year, because once he’s elected speaker, then he’s going to have to keep the group together,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told HuffPost when asked about McCarthy’s troubles.
The Republicans opposed to McCarthy say he won’t do enough to stand up to Democrats and President Joe Biden. They want a speaker who will refuse to pass any bill that lacks full Republican support — even though Democrats control the Senate, meaning no bill can actually become law without Democratic support.
At some point this year, Congress will need to pass bills funding the government and raising the debt limit, allowing the Treasury Department to pay debts Congress has incurred over the years. McCarthy’s opponents have already said they’ll withhold support from those bills in order to extract major policy concessions from Democrats, even though there’s no way the Senate would go along, and even though defaulting on federal debt could cause a financial crisis.
McCarthy’s allies insist this week’s fiasco doesn’t portend disaster for the next two years.
“I think this is gonna be hopefully a good learning experience,” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the incoming chair of the House oversight committee, told HuffPost. “We got to figure out how to get to 218 [votes], and it’s gonna be hard, but it can be done.”
Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) likened the House GOP’s quandary to the one Democrats faced four years ago when newly elected progressives threatened to go against the leadership. Democrats figured out “how to govern with a narrow majority, and we’ll do the same thing,” he said.
Democrats won a 17-seat majority in 2018 before their margin shrank to four seats in 2020. A key difference between now and then is that McCarthy is no Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the former Democratic speaker famed for wielding an iron grip over her caucus and publicly rebuking members of the progressive “squad” several times. It’s not clear that any other Republican could match her by taming a group of lawmakers bent on watching it all burn down. McCarthy’s strategy so far has been to reward his most inflammatory members with promises of committee seats.
Democrats disagreed only on the extent to which government ought to help people, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said.
“They don’t have common goals,” Kildee said of Republicans. “Some of them don’t even believe in government having any kind of significant impact on the quality of life for people. They just don’t believe in it.”
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a Freedom Caucus member who opposes McCarthy, seemed to revel in the scene on the House floor Tuesday.
“So this is what the House looks like when everybody is here and we’re debating with bodies in the chairs,” Roy said. “The American people are watching, and that’s a good thing. What we’re doing is exercising our rights to vote and have a debate and have a discussion about the future of this country through the decision of choosing a speaker.”
Senate Republicans, who have been far more willing to work with Democrats, have seemed impatient with their House counterparts.
“We need to be able to function as a team. We’ve got a lot of stuff we need to get done around here,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) told HuffPost when asked about the House drama.
The House is essentially frozen without a speaker ― no members can be formally sworn in, no committee appointments can be made and no rules can be adopted. The immediate consequence is a delay to GOP plans for the new Congress: the passage of new legislation and investigations of Biden’s administration.
McCarthy doesn’t seem to have made any progress in winning over the necessary support to become speaker after three failed votes on Tuesday. The voting process is expected to resume on Wednesday. The House hasn’t needed more than one ballot to elect a speaker since December 1923. In 1855, the process took 133 ballots and two months to sort out.
“This isn’t just today. This is going to be everyday in the House Republican majority,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) warned on Tuesday. “It’s not just that they won’t be able to govern. It’s that they are going to be an embarrassing public train wreck while they refuse to govern.”