Kevin McCarthy: The Chaos Speaker
The McCarthy era may blow up on the launchpad and Republicans (on both sides) are pissed.
“We have the same fucking scores they do.”
—Rep. Dan Crenshaw
Kevin McCarthy failed to secure the speakership after three rounds of voting and the Republican House majority is already marred by dysfunction, infighting, and grand displays of political theater.
A group of 19 Republicans, which became 20 on the final ballot, refused to back McCarthy, thus blocking his path to 218 votes, and instead coalesced around Rep. Jim Jordan, who is at least superficially a McCarthy supporter. (For the second round of voting, Jordan nominated McCarthy moments before Rep. Matt Gaetz stood to nominate Jordan.)
The selection process—“process”?—will continue Wednesday at noon, but there does not appear to be an endgame.
On the floor, Republicans bickered amongst themselves about the direction of conference and openly defied calls to unify around a leader with boos, groans, and taunting.
Just behind the podium in the lobby of the House chamber, The Bulwark overheard a group of Texas Republicans arguing amongst themselves about why the party’s hardliners in the Freedom Caucus get to claim the mantle of being most conservative.
“What about them is more conservative?” Crenshaw asked Rep. Michael Cloud, one of the Jordan supporters, adding, “We have the same fucking scores they do.”
When Cloud laughed—along with Reps. Michael McCaul and Wesley Hunt—Crenshaw replied, “I’m not fucking joking.”
Later, Crenshaw told The Bulwark that Cloud “gets upset because I ask him, like, what would you want? You know, that’s it.”
Crenshaw suggested the Republican hardliners’ tactics are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of how to legislate.
“They always think they’re fighting for some principle. But what they always end up doing in practical terms is forcing more compromises with Democrats than we otherwise would have had to do,” he said. “They can’t explain—they cannot grasp this concept no matter how many times you show them. They cannot grasp this concept. So you’re not dealing with rational people sometimes.”
Crenshaw added that Tuesday’s dysfunction was a bad omen for the next two years and that Democrats are poised to out-maneuver Republicans if the Freedom Caucus continues to rebel against leadership.
“Democrats are way smarter at this game than we are,” he said. “They will all vote in lockstep because they’re smarter than these guys.”
“These shenanigans that they’ve pulled have certainly weakened us—that seems obvious,” he said. “There’s a deep sense of animosity. You’re going to have to come back from it because in the end you’ve got to just got to do it. You’ve got to work together. We’ll see. We’re not there yet.”
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Other Republicans were similarly unhappy with the McCarthy opposition’s antics.
“It’s a bad start,” said Nebraska Republican Don Bacon, one of the chief critics of the Freedom Caucus. “We wanted to get a good start and you have a small number putting us on a bad start—we should feel bad about it.”
“There’s a couple things I’m not excited about,” Rep. Dan Newhouse told The Bulwark. Newhouse cited Republican leadership giving away too much in negotiations with the far right members who made the first day of the 118th Congress all about blocking his path to the speakership.
It’s one thing to capitulate so that you can get the deal done. It’s another thing to capitulate and still lose.
Meanwhile Democrats got everything they could have wanted. Three failed votes, Republican bad blood, and the day’s proceedings wrapped up around 5:30 p.m.—just in time to lead the evening news.
“I could tell, from issues to the infighting that we see currently, that there will be dysfunction,” Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks told The Bulwark. “We have individuals to such extremes and part of their party—there’s no rationality to it.”
“What you just saw was competency versus chaos,” said California Democrat Eric Swalwell.
At some point there will be movement. Either the number of Republican defectors will start to dwindle—or it will begin to increase. If the defectors start to give in, then maybe McCarthy can make it across the finish line.
But if other Republicans switch their votes to “present,” then McCarthy will face a decision point. He’ll either concede that the speakership is out of reach and begin to arrange for someone else—or he’ll double down, hoping that even if his support dwindles there is no viable alternative. And then keep putting himself forward, no matter what it looks like or how long it takes.
As the voting heads into its second day, the House is still unable to conduct business or even swear in members. On Tuesday, one Democrat offered a solution:
“Elect Speaker George Santos, that will solve everything,” yelled Arizona Democrat Ruben Gallego as he exited the chamber.