With a close in sight, McCarthy plays a weak hand | ET REALITY


When Rep. Kevin McCarthy fell short of the votes he needed to become president in January, he did not intimidate his far-right Republican critics or threaten retaliation. Instead, he granted them important concessions, undergoing a long and humiliating effort to win them over.

McCarthy now faces an almost certain government shutdown and a possible move by the same faction to remove him from office if he tries to avoid the crisis. And he’s resorting to the same people-pleasing script, seeking to appease a faction of his conference that he privately despises.

He has once again bowed to the demands of far-right lawmakers, opening an impeachment inquiry into President Biden and then agreeing to cut public spending to the levels they demanded. When that wasn’t enough, McCarthy shelved a stopgap spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. Instead, he bowed to the right flank’s insistence that he first introduce a series of individual, year-long spending bills laden with ultraconservative political dictates, even though none had a chance of being enacted.

Democrats have criticized him as the weakest speaker in history. Far-right members continue to demand more. But members of McCarthy’s inner circle – a circle of mostly traditional Republicans who are deeply conservative but have little in common with the far right – argue that the speaker’s malleability is actually his strength. They say it is the only way to deal with what they consider an almost ungovernable majority.

“He’s in the driver’s seat, but he’s also willing to ask members in the car to help him navigate,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, a South Dakota Republican and McCarthy loyalist. “That’s not, with all due respect to the other speakers, what they were most interested in was getting everyone in the car where they wanted to go.”

However, with a four-vote voting margin and a far-right that seems hell-bent on forcing a shutdown, McCarthy’s car is out of his control.

In recent days, he and his confidants have considered introducing a temporary spending bill that they know lacks the Republican support needed to pass simply to show the public that they intended to keep the government open, a step many would likely have considered unthinkable. . of his predecessors.

“Increasingly, members have gone to McCarthy to tell him we have to vote for him anyway,” Johnson said. “We need to show a good faith effort to not shut down the government.”

The group of allies advising McCarthy, a California Republican, as he navigates another difficult chapter of his tenure as speaker also includes Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, who has no official leadership role but has become the crisis consigliere. of the speaker; Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, his longtime adviser; and Rep. French Hill of Arkansas, an old-school Republican who looks and sounds like he comes from a different political party than the rebels roiling the House.

As chairman of the Main Street Caucus, Johnson has been in constant contact with McCarthy since taking the lead role in trying to work with members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus to find an interim funding deal that could pass. .

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a foe-turned-friend who has become a poster child for what conservatives can endure, has also been offering advice. For months, he has been telling McCarthy that he needs to get the funding level of any stopgap bill as low as possible and then ask Democrats for a big political concession that he can win: tighter restrictions on border. But so far even that has proven to be a failure for the rebels.

As the days go by and House Republicans squander whatever leverage they may have to sway the Democratic-controlled Senate, choosing the least bad option has become the sad refrain of McCarthy’s closest allies.

That has left him celebrating any progress, however small, he can make, such as the passage this week of a routine procedural measure that allowed several spending bills to go to the House floor for debate. With previous speakers, getting such a measure, known as a rule, adopted was a foregone conclusion; McCarthy has lost three in the last eight months.

“Many of you wondered many times whether you could pass the rule,” McCarthy said at a late-night news conference at the Capitol that served as a weak victory for a race that was far from over. “Now I just want to let you know that the rule has been approved.”

Former President Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who led the 1994 Republican revolution and tried to use a 21-day government shutdown as a political weapon against former President Bill Clinton, said McCarthy faces a much more difficult situation.

“I could never achieve this kind of majority,” Gingrich said. “It takes patience, people-focus and resilience. Kevin has what will be an ongoing problem, and that is that his margin is too small.”

But McCarthy’s problem is not just mathematical punishment. Some of his colleagues say he has made so many promises to members that they simply don’t trust him.

McHenry, however, argued that the speaker has made progress in unifying his conference since January, when a group of 20 members called themselves the “Never Kevins” and had to be slowly won over with concessions.

“The speaker has proven himself to those who were strongly for him — the 200 who were strongly for him in the first week,” McHenry said between meetings at the Capitol on Friday last week, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt . -shirt after McCarthy sent lawmakers home for the weekend, scrapping plans for a weekend session because there was no agreement on what to do.

He noted that some of those who once resisted the Republican Party, such as Representatives Chip Roy of Texas and Byron Donalds of Florida, were now working with McCarthy rather than against him.

“They’re inside trying to solve problems instead of sitting in front of us,” McHenry said. “The actors are similar, actually the same, but the place where people sit is a little more favorable for us to function and generate policy.”

The players may have shifted in their seats around the table, but as Congress neared a close, it was still the far-right members of the conference who seemed to be dictating both policy and procedure, and McCarthy was simply reacting to his wishes. .

So instead of quickly putting a spending patch to a vote, McCarthy spent the precious final days before Saturday’s midnight shutdown deadline approving far-right proposals, such as cutting Defense Secretary Lloyd J.’s salary. Austin III for $1. — a measure proposed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. — canceling Biden’s executive orders to counter climate change and eliminating a Pentagon office of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Still, McHenry said, having endured his tumultuous run for the presidency and a high-stakes negotiation with Biden to avoid a federal debt default, McCarthy was prepared to face the current crisis, which he described as “more complicated but less existential” than any of them.

“We’ve been through a government shutdown before,” he said. “This has a different feel.”

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