WASHINGTON. The new speaker of the House of Representatives is Republican Kevin McCarthy, but as hard as it is for him to grab the gavel in a historic election, it can be even harder for a leader in combat to do anything with a position of power — or even hold it.
Like the last two Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, McCarthy assumes control of a troubled, rebellious majority, split almost as much as the party itself, between what’s left of the GOP conservatives and the new tea generation. hardliners, Donald Trump hardliners who prefer the near absence of big government.
The chaos that erupted over four days of voting in the House of Representatives and interrupted the start of the new Congress is a prelude to a highly uncertain road ahead as McCarthy attempts to lead a rebellious Republican majority to achieve his priorities and counter President Joe Biden’s agenda – and, perhaps even keep the government from shutting down.
“This is the important part: because it took so long, now we have learned how to manage,” McCarthy, first elected in 2006, suggested as he approached victory.
McCarthy endured a grueling week-long struggle to achieve this, electing a Speaker the likes of which had not been seen since the Civil War. A coalition of 20 dissenters refused to support his speakership unless he gave in to their demands to hand over some of the power. He had to go through 14 ballots before he finally got a majority in the 15th ballot, but not before a final chaotic scene of shouting between allies and foes pushed the vote into early Saturday.
After all, McCarthy appears as a weakened orator with less authority on paper than his predecessors. This is especially true because he agreed to make a key concession to far-right opponents: to restore a rule that allows any individual legislator to make a “vacation motion” by essentially voting to remove the speaker from that leadership position.
But in some ways, the son of rugged Bakersfield, an oil and agricultural hub in central California, is also plucking up his courage as a survivor who has endured one of history’s most brutal power struggles and prides himself on being underestimated as a political fighter.
“Obviously I enjoy making history,” McCarthy joked at one point in a tumultuous week.
McCarthy has staked his political career on early support for Trump, and it was the former president who acted when needed, calling dissenters late and “helping get those final votes.” When it finally ended, when McCarthy entered the office of the speaker of the Capitol, a sign with his name was already hanging.
Many tests are expected.
The challenge ahead for Congress is to pass bills to fund the government, resupply the depleted military in decades of war and help Ukraine, authorize agricultural programs and raise the national borrowing limit to stave off an unprecedented federal default.
For the first time as president, Biden will face a divided government: the House of Representatives is in the hands of the Republicans, while the Senate is still controlled, albeit narrowly, by the Democrats.
A divided government can be a time for bipartisan bargaining, with parties coming together to solve important problems. But more often it leads to brinkmanship, which leads to stalemate, confrontation and standstill.
Republicans in the House of Representatives are seeking to oppose Biden over White House oversight of the US-Mexico border, the COVID-19 crisis, and other issues, as well as investigations into Biden, his family, and his administration.
“I came to Washington to challenge the status quo,” Republican Bob Good of Virginia wrote in an op-ed ahead of the many anti-McCarthy votes. “I intend to keep that promise.” Good was one of six Republicans who voted “in attendance” on the final roll call.
McCarthy has been here before.
In 2011, the Tea Party Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, opposing the agenda of President Barack Obama and his Vice President Biden. The movement opposed Washington’s political establishment and espoused a conservative and libertarian philosophy, advocating less spending, lower taxes, and reductions in the national debt and budget deficit.
McCarthy helped recruit the Tea Party class and he became a third-rank Republican, part of the Young Guns with Ryan of Wisconsin, and then a member of the House of Representatives. Eric Cantor from Virginia.
Fueled by the Tea Party, they continued to lead Republicans in the House of Representatives into crisis after crisis, trying to cut federal spending during the 2012 fiscal cliff and the 2013 federal shutdowns as they tried to cancel Obama’s health care program.
In 2015, when the then Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who chaired the Freedom Caucus and later served as Trump’s last chief of staff, threatened a “vacation motion” — a vote to oust the speaker — that Boehner opted for early retirement.
McCarthy tried to take Boner’s seat, but dropped out of the race when it became clear the Conservatives would not support him. Ryan ended up getting the job. But he, too, retired in the Trump era.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California repealed the “vacate seat” rule when Democrats regained their majority in 2019. An experienced legislator who went down in history as the first woman to become a speaker, experience.
McCarthy has been in office for 15 years, half as long as Pelosi did when she first took the helm, and with far fewer legislative victories to speak of. During last week’s talks with the hardliners, he was forced to reinstate the “vacation of the chair” offer in order to win over opponents. Now they can keep him over him every single day.
“If the CEO doesn’t do his job, you can fire him – same thing in politics,” said Republican Ralph Norman of South Carolina, one of the opponents McCarthy secured with the rule change.
The chaos that erupted in the House of Representatives last week could be a prelude to the upcoming Congress.
“What you saw last week,” Norman said, “is how democracy works.”