The Republican Party’s war on itself has turned its inoperative House majority into a “clown show” and a “dysfunction caucus” and is handing wins to the Chinese Communist Party – and that’s just what some of its own members say about it.
Days of recriminations between far-right hardliners, moderates, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his nihilistic tormentors reached a new peak on Tuesday in extraordinary scenes of inter-party infighting on the south side of the US Capitol.
The legislative train wreck made clear that more is now at stake than McCarthy’s loosening grip on a job he craved for years and the capacity of the GOP to fulfill the chamber’s most basic function – setting a budget to run the country.
The Republican majority’s farcical self-harm now increasingly appears to be putting America on a path hurtling toward a government shutdown ahead of a deadline for new federal funding at the end of next week. This could mean furloughs for federal workers who provide basic services, that troops could go unpaid and the possibility of severe damage to an economy that can’t afford more knocks if the impasse is prolonged.
A shutdown – provoked by the demands for massive spending cuts by GOP hardliners that they have no hope of forcing through the Senate or getting President Joe Biden to sign, could sour voters on the small House majority they gave to Republicans in the midterm elections. More broadly, it could raise fresh doubts about the capacity of a polarized nation – featuring an ever more extreme and performative Republican Party in ex-President Donald Trump’s image – to govern itself.
And the chaos could spread beyond the US. Another failure Tuesday to pass a defense bill raised the possibility that political discord now and in the future could hamper US readiness amid a challenge from a rising Chinese superpower. And Ukraine’s fight for survival looks increasingly hostage to the House’s unwillingness or inability to finance a new lifeline of arms and ammunition.
What the standoff is about
McCarthy’s leadership team is still struggling to find a way to pass a stop gap spending bill known as a continuing resolution – or a CR – to keep government open and buy more time to end a fierce internecine dispute over demands for massive spending cuts by hardliners. But the radicals may have the numbers to stop the measure from even reaching the House floor and demand more concessions.
“I don’t know how they will get to 218,” South Carolina GOP Rep. Nancy Mace, referring to McCarthy’s magic number to pass a bill, said after leaving a conference meeting.
In Congress, chaos and ill-feeling often reach their most extreme pitch just before the fever breaks and a creative solution emerges to punt a problem weeks down the road. McCarthy has been hoping this is the case by refusing to abandon the CR. But the Republican majority is so thin – the speaker can lose only four votes with its current margin – and the party is so bitterly divided, that past experience may be a poor predictor of outcomes. And for some a smallish block on the extreme edge of the pro-Trump conference, the chance to close down a government that many of them disdain could get them points from base voters and the ex-president and may be an end in itself.
Rep. Mike Simpson, a veteran member for Idaho, bemoaned the situation where recalcitrant members can hold the rest of the chamber hostage. He said it’s “frustrating that the place doesn’t work anymore.”
Simpson added: “We’re being dragged around by 20 people, but 200 of us are in agreement. … They want their way or the highway. And that’s not the way this government works.”
Simpson’s comment encapsulated both the reality of the tiny GOP majority and also the fact that the GOP radicals essentially reject the premise of constitutional divided government itself. They have failed to build sufficient public support through elections to win power – but they are trying to wield it anyway – an approach that threatens democracy but is in keeping with the character of much their party in the age of Trump.
Could a tie-up between moderate Republicans and Democrats save the day?
There is however one potential solution that could head off the crisis – an emerging discussion of a tie-up between a number of moderate House Republicans whose seats are at risk in 2024 and Democrats that would extend government funding and even potentially furnish Ukraine with new aid.
A complex set of maneuvers could send a spending bill out of the House that a sufficient number of senators of both parties in the Democrat-led Senate could agree on. Still even this arcane answer is a long shot. For one thing, the use of the so-called discharge petition would take time to work through legislative hoops as the shutdown clock runs down.
That means a compromise between moderate Republicans and Democrats might be a more viable option to end a shutdown than to prevent it. It would also require minority Democrats to decide to line up alongside GOP lawmakers from states like New York whom they will target in their bid to take back the majority in 2024. So handing a win to the critical Republicans on whom the GOP majority depends may be a poor strategy. And a partnership might also have the effect of bailing McCarthy out of a situation in which his conference looks incapable and dysfunctional and from which Democrats can profit.
On the other hand, Democrats might enjoy the optics of hijacking the House chamber and making the speaker look even weaker. Intrigue about a potential revenge of the moderates spiked on Tuesday after Republican Rep. Mike Lawler, from a New York swing district, said he was open to working with Democrats.
“If the clown show of colleagues that refuse to actually govern doesn’t want to pass the CR, I will do everything we need to make sure that a CR passes,” Lawler said.
“The bottom line is we’re not shutting the government down,” he added.
In a sign that Democrats are considering their options, their leader Hakeem Jeffries will meet the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus on Wednesday. The group has a bipartisan plan to fund the government by temporarily extending current spending levels and include aid for recent domestic national disasters, Ukraine funding and some border security provisions. But underscoring potential tensions within the Democratic Party over any eventual deal, the Congressional Progressive Caucus announced a meeting to discuss their perspective on the budget negotiations.
The notion of a moderate revolt and cross-party bipartisan solutions from the political middle have often been mooted in age of hyper-partisan fury in Congress. On odd occasions they’ve worked – for instance in the infrastructure program passed by President Joe Biden in a win that eluded his predecessors. But such efforts usually collapse on the logic of partisanship. Sometimes, they are used as a feint by party members to call the bluff of more radical members of their conference. And any decision by a handful of Republicans to split with McCarthy, who supported them with fundraising and advice in the midterm elections would be a tough one, personally and politically. It could also make them persona non grata on their own benches.
“If moderate Republicans sign a discharge petition with Democrats, they are signing their own political death warrant and they are handing it to their executioner because it won’t be me and the conservatives off hunting the moderates,” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, McCarthy’s most prominent GOP critic, said. “It’ll be the very Democrats that they would be working with under that hypothesis.”
And weighing on Republican moderates will be the risk they could cost the speaker his job. A bill that passed the House with Democratic votes could be the final straw for McCarthy’s enemies and cause a vote to unseat him.
The plight of a speaker saddled with a tiny majority and a rebellious conference in a party that rewards extreme rabble rousing rather than legislating and governing was laid bare on Tuesday when five conservative members killed an attempt to pass a defense bill that was loaded with GOP priorities – normally one of the easiest legislative lifts.
“They just handed a win to the Chinese Communist Party as a result of this vote,” Rep. Mike Garcia, a Republican from California and an ex-Navy fighter pilot, told CNN’s Manu Raju.
Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, who represents a Biden swing district, commented to reporters as he motioned toward the House floor: “The dysfunction caucus at work.”
The bizarre circumstances of the House crisis were encapsulated during one appearance before reporters on Tuesday by McCarthy when tensions appeared to boil over when he was asked about aid to Ukraine – that Biden warned at the United Nations on Tuesday was critical to winning a war that would spill far beyond its current footprint amid Russian expansionism if the US abandons Kyiv.
“Was Zelensky elected to Congress? Is he our president? I don’t think so,” McCarthy said, in a striking outburst against a Washington ally fighting a war for his country’s survival. Zelensky will be in the Capitol on Thursday, on a mission to shore up his country’s desperately needed aid pipeline from the US.
Even to a leader from a war zone constantly under attack from Russian drones and missiles, Washington’s utter failure to govern itself is likely to look like dysfunction run riot.