The recent week in Congress has been nothing short of chaotic and dramatic, and it’s only Wednesday. The rollercoaster ride began with the looming threat of a government shutdown, which then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy unexpectedly averted by proposing a 47-day continuing resolution to maintain government operations with 2023 funding levels, albeit without aid to Ukraine. This proposal passed with surprising bipartisan support in the House and Senate, ultimately signed by President Biden.
However, this move didn’t sit well with anti-establishment Republicans who viewed it as a capitulation to Democrats. Rep. Matt Gaetz, for instance, initiated a motion to vacate the chair on Monday, essentially a vote of no-confidence in McCarthy’s speakership. Then, on Tuesday, history was made when eight Republicans joined 208 Democrats in ousting McCarthy from the speaker’s office, marking the first time in U.S. history that a House speaker lost their job in this manner.
There’s plenty to unpack here, including the potential political fallout and speculation about the next House Speaker. But let’s begin by addressing why McCarthy lost his position and whether he could have taken different actions to retain it.
Why McCarthy Lost His Speakership
One succinct assessment comes from Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal: “Nobody trusts Kevin McCarthy.” A Washington Post analysis revealed a pattern of promises made by McCarthy to both Democrats and far-right Republicans that were impossible to fulfill. Moreover, following Democrats’ assistance in keeping the government open, McCarthy turned the blame on them during a “Face the Nation” appearance. In essence, he was perceived as two-faced.
Leah Askarinam adds a touch of humor to the discussion, likening the situation to “Mean Girls Day.” She suggests that McCarthy might have survived if he had a clearer strategy, perhaps by aligning more closely with the right-wing faction or by working more collaboratively with Democrats. However, his reluctance to fully commit to either approach left him without a solid support base.
McCarthy’s Dilemma: A Difficult Balancing Act
Nathaniel Rakich highlights McCarthy’s challenge: he needed to choose a side and stick with it. While leaning into working with Democrats might have cost him Republican support, doubling down on hard-line Republican positions could have led to a government shutdown. It was an untenable situation.
Monica Potts notes that McCarthy’s predicament traces back to his initial deal in January, allowing just one member to trigger a motion to vacate, rather than requiring a majority of the GOP caucus. Leah Askarinam speculates that appealing to centrist Democrats could have been an option, but even Rep. Jared Golden, who didn’t campaign against Republican Sen. Susan Collins in 2020 and voted for only one article of impeachment against former President Donald Trump, ended up voting against McCarthy. This suggests that McCarthy missed opportunities to secure broader support.
While this tumultuous week dealt a blow to Republicans, Democrats must assess whether it was a clear victory or a more nuanced outcome. The aftermath of the government shutdown fight did not yield significant concessions for Democrats. Additionally, the spectacle highlighted Republican divisions for all to see. However, it also showcased the challenges Democrats may face in achieving bipartisan cooperation.
Congressional Chaos Unpacked: Impact and Implications
Leah.Askarinam: It’s still uncertain, Nathaniel. Rep. Bob Good, one of McCarthy’s critics, suggested on Tuesday that this could be the opportune moment for Republicans to leverage a government shutdown. Interestingly, recent polls indicated that, for some reason, voters were leaning toward blaming Democrats rather than Republicans in the event of a shutdown. McCarthy’s supporters are now spinning the narrative that Democrats ousted him, portraying them as the ones responsible for dysfunction in D.C. If this message resonates with voters who were already inclined to blame Democrats, it could work to Republicans’ advantage. Keep an eye on this in the days to come.
Monica Potts: On the policy front, Democrats might have won the shutdown battle, but politically, it’s less clear-cut. This week’s skirmishes were primarily driven by internal Republican divisions, yet voters appear inclined to hold Democrats at least partially accountable—perhaps because they have more influence in Washington, controlling the Senate and the White House, while Republicans hold only the House. Additionally, the 47-day government funding extension without Ukraine aid is missing from the equation, leaving a policy gap. Rather than addressing these spending issues and advancing other policy priorities, the House is mired in a leadership tussle. Democrats were unwilling to save McCarthy’s leadership, but this may align better with their long-term objectives in some manner.
Nathaniel Rakich: Let’s back these statements with some numbers. Monmouth University‘s poll showed that 48 percent of Americans would have held Biden or congressional Democrats most responsible for a shutdown, compared to 43 percent for congressional Republicans. Morning Consult reported that 44 percent of Americans would have blamed Biden or congressional Democrats the most, while only 34 percent would have held congressional Republicans responsible. This data suggests that the shutdown resolution was a clear win for Democrats, as they avoided a potentially damaging political situation.
However, the outcome of the speakership fight remains uncertain. McCarthy did consent to present a continuing resolution that included most of what Democrats desired. Yet, the next Republican speaker might not be as generous, especially after witnessing McCarthy’s fate.
Leah Askarinam: I’m in agreement, Nathaniel. It’s doubtful that any speaker can appease the Republican hardliners entirely. Ultimately, the House must pass bills that can navigate the Democratic Senate and gain President Biden’s approval.
Moreover, it hinges on what those hardliners truly desire. If their goal is to sow chaos and potentially use the attention to launch higher office campaigns, there’s little any speaker can do to satisfy them, right?
Nathaniel Rakich: That’s a crucial point. Reports suggest that Gaetz is contemplating a run for Florida governor in 2026.
Now, transitioning to elections – do you think this speakership battle and non-shutdown will have an electoral impact, either in 2024 or the upcoming elections in about a month?
Leah Askarinam: The fight itself? I don’t believe it will make a difference in 2024. However, it might shed light on the challenges Republicans will face leading up to 2024 and how they plan to address them. It’s easy to overlook how much this drama revolves around Trump, the likely GOP nominee. Trump didn’t offer substantial support to McCarthy, and some of his allies, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, promptly called for Trump to become the speaker. Although this is unlikely to occur, aligning with Trump is beneficial in the short term. McCarthy’s decision to initiate an impeachment inquiry into Biden was influenced directly or indirectly by Trump’s calls for it.
Monica Potts: I concur, Leah. I don’t think voters will factor this into their decisions at the polls next year, but it does illuminate the state of the Republican Party. This will undoubtedly affect the dynamics of the 2024 election.
Nathaniel Rakich: I’ll push back a bit – give me evidence that this won’t matter to voters!
Monica Potts: I believe most voters do not closely follow the intricacies and dramas of Congress. They tend to view events through partisan lenses. A year from now, I’m unsure if this particular fight will be perceived as significant. However, it could contribute to the broader perception of how Republicans and Democrats govern, potentially influencing voter sentiments toward them.
Leah Askarinam: In the context of voters’ concerns, such as Ukraine, inflation, and abortion, I don’t believe this type of internal politics will be a top priority. It’s not comparable to when Republicans rejected a figure widely beloved by their base, like Trump. YouGov/The Economist conducted a poll in early October, revealing that McCarthy’s approval rating among Republican voters was just 49 percent. While his disapproval rating was only 29 percent, notably, 22 percent of Republicans had no opinion. Thus, few Americans feel strongly enough about McCarthy to base decisions on congressional events that could harm him.
Nathaniel Rakich: I partially agree but also disagree. In January, it appeared that Americans were attentive to the speakership battle and reacted negatively. According to FiveThirtyEight’s forthcoming tracker of Congress’s average approval rating, Congress’s net approval rating declined from -30 percentage points on January 3, 2023, to -42 points by February 5. However, this dip was short-lived, rebounding to -31 points by February 20. Although this month’s events may influence public opinion in the short term, I concur that the effects won’t linger until next year’s election.
Leah Askarinam: But will the DRAMA persist until next year’s election?!
Nathaniel Rakich: That’s the million-dollar question!
Monica Potts: If it does, I’ll have C-SPAN on repeat.
Leah Askarinam: C-SPAN might become the new Netflix for a very specific group of nerds.
Nathaniel Rakich: Let’s conclude here – what’s your take on what happens next? Who will be the next House Speaker? Can Republicans agree on a single candidate?
Monica Potts: Expect chaos!
I believe that failed votes will precede successful ones.
Leah Askarinam: I’m old enough to recall when McCarthy secured the speakership even when it seemed impossible for Republicans to agree on a candidate. And I even remember when Republicans had to persuade former Rep. Paul Ryan to run for speaker, as it seemed the GOP conference couldn’t unite behind anyone else. So, what lies ahead? I can’t say for sure, but eventually, they’ll likely find someone. A few Republicans have already indicated their interest.
Nathaniel Rakich: Indeed, Rep. Jim Jordan and Majority Leader Steve Scalise have announced their intentions to run, and Rep. Kevin Hern is reportedly considering it. However, it’s worth noting that the speaker doesn’t need to be a House member legally. Furthermore, as you mentioned earlier, Leah, some Republican representatives have already endorsed Trump for the role. How probable do you think that is?
Leah Askarinam: Never say never, but no, Trump won’t become the speaker. For one, it may violate House rules due to Trump’s ongoing legal issues. Second, serving as speaker with such a narrow majority isn’t an ideal path to political success. After leaving the speakership,
John Boehner ventured into the marijuana industry, and Paul Ryan became a professor. Lastly, it would be challenging for the 18 Republicans in districts won by Biden to support Trump for speaker while aiming for re-election.”
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