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Sam Sawyer, S.J.January 05, 2023
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., leaves the floor after the House adjourned until later in the evening as the House meets for a second day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., leaves the floor after the House adjourned until later in the evening as the House meets for a second day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

As I write, the ninth vote for speaker of the House is ongoing, and the votes already counted mean that Kevin McCarthy cannot be elected in this round. The seventh and eighth votes were concluded earlier this afternoon with results almost identical to the fourth, fifth and sixth votes from yesterday. The number of Republicans refusing to support Mr. McCarthy remains unchanged, but some of the holdouts are starting to switch their votes to new candidates. On two of those votes, Matt Gaetz voted for Donald Trump.

Mr. McCarthy’s inability, over nine attempts, to convince any of the holdouts in his caucus to support his bid for speaker despite conceding to more and more of their demands not only leaves the House trapped in this series of votes—it also hints at the way fractures are developing within the Republican Party and perhaps within the two-party system itself.

There is not yet a clear name or organizational principle for the group of 20 Republicans who are refusing to vote for Mr. McCarthy. Sometimes they are called the “Never Kevins,” but that does not explain why they are seemingly willing to continue extracting concessions from Mr. McCarthy, including allowing a single Republican member of the House to call for a snap vote to oust him as speaker (if he ever manages to get elected). Most of the 20 are members of the Freedom Caucus, but others in the Freedom Caucus, including Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene, are helping lead the push for Mr. McCarthy. Most of the 20 are also Trump loyalists, but Mr. Trump is supporting Mr. McCarthy as well. Other Republicans—most prominently Daniel Crenshaw—have complained that even in private conversations, the holdouts “have zero ability to articulate what they want that would cause them to vote yes.”

But while the anti-McCarthy Republicans do not have—and might not want—a specific name for themselves, they are functioning, right now, as a third party. Practically speaking, their common cause with the rest of the Republican Caucus at the moment amounts to the fact that they would never consider voting to give a Democrat the speaker’s gavel. And since 201 regular Republicans plus 20 “Never Kevins” and one Republican voting present outnumber the 212 Democrats, the House is stuck.

In a sense, what we have is a three-party House in which the (non-)functional majority lacks a coalition agreement. Looking at the mess in those terms, I think, makes the stakes and possible outcomes a little easier to understand.

In a sense, what we have is a three-party House in which the (non-)functional majority lacks a coalition agreement.

The holdouts have made it clear that the Republican majority’s ability to govern is less important to them than their own aims, whatever those are. In that sense they are operating more as a third party that might be in coalition with the rest of the Republicans than as normal members of the caucus. Mr. McCarthy seems interested in reaching a coalition, to the point that he has offered more and more concessions, which have not yet been enough. The problem is that the demands the holdouts have articulated, many of which have been met, are mostly a variety of different ways to derail the House’s proceedings, in much the same way they are currently derailing the process of electing the speaker.

What this quasi-party is most focused on, it seems, is being able to play a game of chicken with the process of governance. They want to be able to make sure that any member can force a vote to oust the speaker and to make it easier for individual members to force votes on amendments and unpopular bills. But these measures would not really increase the likelihood of them being able to pass those bills or elect a speaker more to their liking at some point in the future—much less to do anything that stands a chance of passing the Senate under a Democratic majority or of being signed by President Biden.

The holdouts are not trying to identify a set of legislative proposals and use their leverage to get them passed in exchange for their participation in the majority. They are instead negotiating for maximum ability to hamstring the majority of which they would be a part.

Imagine how this would turn out at critical junctures during the 118th Congress. Will the holdouts decide to hold the rest of the Republican majority hostage when a funding bill is needed to avoid a government shutdown? Or on a must-pass bill to raise the debt limit and avoid a default on U.S. sovereign debt? The chaos following this latter possibility would easily eclipse the economic panic on display in the United Kingdom during Liz Truss’ vanishingly brief turn as prime minister.

But the main point they will have made is in the game of chicken—and the countdown to the next game of chicken will start pretty much instantly.

At the moment, I think the likeliest outcome of the holdouts’ strategy is that eventually Mr. McCarthy will be forced to give up his bid for the speakership, and then the holdouts will vote for some other Republican under some set of the concessions Mr. McCarthy offered. But the main point they will have made is in the game of chicken—that they are willing to push the whole House into a crisis for which they do not have a plan, or even a clear set of demands, if they do not get their way. And the countdown to the next game of chicken will start pretty much instantly.

But there are other models of how coalitions could work as the Republican Party no longer operates stably in the old two-party system at the state level. In Ohio, Democrats helped elect a moderate Republican as speaker of the state House after a far-right Republican had won an unofficial party vote for the position. In Pennsylvania, in a complicated scenario in which Republicans hold a temporary majority in the state House, Democrats combined with more than a dozen Republicans to elect a moderate Democrat as speaker who promised he would serve independently of either party. And in the Alaska Senate, eight Republicans and nine Democrats have formed a bipartisan coalition comprising 17 of the 20 state senators, leaving out three far-right Republicans.

While I do not think anything similar is a real possibility at the federal level, it might be instructive to imagine what it would look like. One scenario would be some chunk of Republicans deciding that they could make a less-costly set of concessions to win over some Democrats rather than trying to appease their own holdouts. Perhaps that would leave Mr. McCarthy as Republican leader and Hakeem Jeffries as Democratic leader, while electing some compromise candidate to serve as speaker under a coalition agreement.

This is, of course, vanishingly unlikely because no significant players within either party seem to be interested in exploring such possibilities. At the moment, the Democratic position—understandably—is that the Republicans set up this problem by courting and kowtowing to the fringe of their own party, and they need to find their own way out of it. And the Republican position seems to be to do the same thing over and over again hoping for different results.

The threat of that approach is that “the same thing over and over again” does not just include continually attempting to elect Mr. McCarthy. It also includes having the Republican majority, and thus the House, and thus the country, held hostage to the game of chicken that 20 Republicans have opted for instead of governing.

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