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Alex Brandon

Larry Donnelly The radicals are wreaking havoc on Capitol Hill

Our columnist looks at the chaos in the US Congress as Republicans spar over the election of a speaker.

AT THIS STAGE, nothing really should surprise me about politics in the United States. But I was well and truly shocked by the amount of congressional Republicans – 20 by the third roll call vote – who refused to ratify their colleague, Kevin McCarthy of California, as the new Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The vote of the majority party to confirm a speaker is typically ceremonial in nature. It has been a century since multiple ballots were needed to choose one. In the run-up to Tuesday, many old hands in Washington, DC, while acknowledging that there was opposition to McCarthy within the self-styled Freedom Caucus, predicted confidently that he would prevail.

After all, McCarthy acceded to most of their demands with respect to how he would lead and offered plenty of additional incentives for the hardest of the hard right in the US to get on board. Additionally, the putative objectors had to recognise that a protracted battle for the speakership would not be viewed favourably by the American people and could ultimately prove counterproductive to the conservative causes that motivated them to seek public office.

Beyond reason

As the day’s events clearly demonstrated, though, a not insignificant cohort of the Freedom Caucus don’t give a damn and are beyond reasoning with. It is worth delineating where they are on the ideological spectrum. For starters, the reviled Kevin McCarthy is no left-winger. He voted the same way as the first chair of the Freedom Caucus, Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio, more than 90% of the time in 2017 and 2018. The vast majority of GOP House members want McCarthy to be speaker.

Among them is Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far right Georgia Congresswoman who has espoused a litany of conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, and likened Democrats to Nazis during the pandemic. Donald Trump is another supporter. On his Truth Social platform, he exhorted Republicans to “VOTE FOR KEVIN, CLOSE THE DEAL, TAKE THE VICTORY…DO NOT TURN A GREAT TRIUMPH INTO A GIANT & EMBARRASSING DEFEAT…Kevin McCarthy will do a good job, and maybe even a GREAT JOB – JUST WATCH!”

It is no wonder, then, that there has been a furious reaction from many on the right to McCarthy’s foes. Writing in the New York Post, Michael Goodwin labels them “rebels without a cause” and says that “this is madness.” South Carolina Congresswoman Nancy Mace tweets that “Matt Gaetz’s (a prominent figure in the Freedom Caucus) full ego was on display today. He’s going to screw around and get another Pelosi elected Speaker. I’ll have a lot more to say about this political D-Lister tomorrow.”

Shifting right

But the radicals appear undaunted. Two happenings on Tuesday encapsulate the depth of their determination and their irrationality. In a speech on the floor, the aforementioned Congressman Jordan offered a full-throated endorsement of McCarthy and practically begged them to rally around the man. In response, they ignored this entreaty and went en masse for Jordan.

And Congressman Gaetz – in an exceptionally odd rebuke to the narrative that America is hopelessly split along party lines – let it be known to McCarthy that he doesn’t care if Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, a progressive, is elected Speaker in his stead, such is his enmity for an individual he has termed a “swamp creature” who has “sold shares of himself for a decade” to advance his political career.

Where to now? This is the question everyone is asking. There have been three votes and Kevin McCarthy is still not close to the bare majority of 218 he needs. The Freedom Caucus collectively have a point when they say he is ambitious to a fault. He has wanted to be Speaker of the House for many years, having fallen just shy of achieving his goal in 2015.

McCarthy resolutely claims that he will keep fighting for as long as it takes to win; an 1856 contest for the speakership lasted two months and used up 133 ballots. There almost definitely won’t be a repeat of that marathon, but Matt Gaetz and company seem equally unwavering.

Alternative paths to bringing matters to a conclusion have been floated. One is that a moderate, perhaps someone who isn’t even a sitting House member (strangely, there is no such requirement), might cobble together enough centrist backing to get to the magic number. A second is that a handful of Democrats or Republicans could absent themselves or declare themselves “present” to facilitate the election of McCarthy or Jeffries. A third is an intentional or inadvertent kamikaze mission by the Freedom Caucus that would elevate Jeffries. These are rather implausible scenarios in my estimation.

More probable is that either McCarthy will somehow manage to persuade enough of the Freedom Caucus disciples to get on side or, following further losing vote(s), pressure will be brought to bear upon him to withdraw in favour of a candidate acceptable to the broadest cross-section of the party. Congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana is one who fits the bill.

I would judge the latter outcome the more likely from this remove. A sage message for the eventual victor, however, might be as follows: the good news is that you got the job and the bad news is that you got the job.

Regardless of how it turns out this evening or in the coming days, it doesn’t bode well for the 118th Congress. To pointless investigations and gridlock that loom on the horizon can be added the strong possibility of government shutdowns instigated at the whim of disproportionately empowered denizens of the Freedom Caucus. And I thought George Santos was crazy.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with The Journal.


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