An embarrassing spectacle for the GOP

The Republican House majority, or maybe we should say “majority,” is not off to an auspicious start.

The party is in the midst of a deadlock over the speakership not seen in a hundred years, with Kevin McCarthy having failed now to get the requisite 218 votes on six ballots and counting.

This is an embarrassing spectacle, although one that is unlikely to do lasting damage assuming it is resolved on a reasonable basis sometime soon.

The substantive stakes are also quite small. There are inherent limits to what Republicans are going to be able to do with a five-vote majority in the House without control of the Senate or White House. Kevin McCarthy could be speaker, or someone whose name is drawn from a hat, and the results will largely be the same.

McCarthy is not a visionary like Newt Gingrich or a policy maven like Paul Ryan. Rather, he is a political mechanic who relishes the nuts-and-bolts of campaigning. He’s flexible to a fault, as he’s proved with his posture toward Donald Trump over the last two years. Yet he’s played a large part in Republicans’ winning the House twice now, in 2010 and in 2022, although he cannot escape some responsibility for the party’s underperformance in 2022 — for which nobody has been held accountable.

His support in the conference is broad, if not deep, and there’s no ready alternative who would clearly be a better speaker.

Tellingly, the rebels don’t have a different candidate and have been parking their votes with symbolic alternatives who have no interest in or hope of becoming speaker.

The dissidents have an array of motives and an (ever-shifting) list of demands, but they can be roughly thrown into at least two broad categories. One, exemplified by Chip Roy of Texas, genuinely wants a more open process on the House floor and is horrified by the level of spending in Washington and how so much of it happens with rushed, practically unread, enormous “must pass” bills. These concerns are real, and it’s right to address them, although — again — a narrow House majority by itself is unlikely to be able to make major changes.

Then, there are the arsonists like Matt Gaetz who enjoy the thrill and notoriety of burning something down. They are contemptible and unappeasable, and all you need to know is that even Marjorie Taylor Greene is done with them.

Where does this go now? The situation is very fluid. McCarthy is going to keep working the 20 members opposed to him to see if he can whittle the group down and then perhaps get over the top with members voting present to reduce the number he needs to get to a majority. The advantage he has is that he has no viable opponent, but time presumably isn’t on his side. The moment may come when he’ll have to step aside — a bitter pill after also coming up short in 2015 — and see if his deputy Steve Scalise or someone else can put together a majority.

Regardless, the fraction of House Republicans who hate their own party and don’t care if it is humiliated and rendered ineffectual will be a problem for any speaker. There is no short-term solution for this, but the party should deny committee assignments and cut off support for the likes of Lauren Boebert, who pay back the help they’ve gotten to remain in Washington with idiotic and destructive antics.

Ideally, the party would use this period of intense debate to come to a broad consensus about its path forward, agreeing on priorities that aren’t overly ambitious or overly complacent, especially when it comes to the looming fight over the debt ceiling. Unfortunately, if the fight over the speakership is highly unpredictable, this is the one outcome that can almost certainly be ruled out.

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