Behind the scenes

Kevin McCarthy's predictably troubled speakership

The Republican is stuck amid intra-party squabbles that his own speakership bid helped enable

When Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) finally secured his historically embattled bid to become Speaker of the House this winter, it was the belabored result of a Faustian bargain between himself and the furthest-right wing of his party, to whom McCarthy offered a suite of deep political concessions.

Now, three months into his speakership, McCarthy is reportedly in the midst of discovering what many observers predicted when he assumed the speaker's gavel: that by bargaining away major parts of his sought-after authority in order to lead a slim Republican majority, McCarthy has created a significant impediment to his party's ability to govern that could, ultimately, threaten the position he fought so hard to attain in the first place. 

Could McCarthy soon be ousted?

Speaking with CNN this week, Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) confirmed that while the far-right Freedom Caucus hasn't pulled the trigger on the biggest gun in their intra-party negotiation arsenal, Republicans have raised the possibility of forcing a vote to oust McCarthy from the speaker's seat using what's called a "motion to vacate."

"It does come up from time to time, as we game plan and we look at all of the alternatives and contingency plans that could play out over the next two years, " Crane told the network, highlighting a dilemma of McCarthy's own making. As part of the concessions offered to garner support for his speaker's bid, McCarthy agreed to lower the threshold for introducing a motion to vacate — the mechanism by which any member of the caucus could start the process of removing the presiding speaker — from five people to just one single lawmaker. 

"If one person can push a motion to vacate, we'll do this again. How would you like to do this every week?" Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) predicted to The Hill shortly after McCarthy finally secured enough votes to become speaker after more than a dozen failed ballots. "I think that's the future with a few of these individuals. … It weakens the speaker, and it strengthens the smallest caucus of all the caucuses."

That chaos is reportedly a two-way street — particularly with the looming debt ceiling breach, and the accompanying budget negotiations. As The New York Times' Jonathan Swan and Annie Karnie explain, despite vows not to "bear grudges against the right-wing holdouts [to his speakership] who extracted major policy and personnel concessions in exchange for their votes. [The] suspicions and divisions exposed during that process remain and are spilling out into the open as Mr. McCarthy faces his most consequential test: reaching a deal with President Biden to avert a catastrophic default on the nation's debt as soon as this summer."

The blame game

Speaking with Politico about McCarthy's frustrations with members of his own party, including his top lieutenants, one senior Republican pointed to the seeming inevitability of the speaker's current circumstances. "He made a bunch of promises during the speaker race that were always untenable, but he made them anyway," the source said.

"At a certain point, a lot of that stuff is going to collide, and he's getting nervous and looking for others to blame," the figure added. 

Those collisions, which will only intensify as budget negotiations continue, have already cast a pall on the current congressional session. As CNN noted after House Republicans barely passed a recent bill more valuable for its optics than legislative prospects, "the intense whipping effort and internal drama on a messaging bill that is dead-on-arrival in the Senate has become a recurring theme of the House GOP's first 100 days in office."

In particular, McCarthy has reportedly targeted Budget Chair Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) of late, allegedly referring to one of the most important figures in the ongoing budget negotiations between Congress and the White House "as incompetent, according to more than half a dozen people familiar with his thinking." And while some of the opprobrium toward Arrington is reportedly McCarthy's effort to deflect blame from himself, it is also a clash stemming from McCarthy's speakership fight. "The Texas Republican privately floated [GOP Rep. Steve] Scalise for speaker when McCarthy was unable to lock down the votes for himself in January," Politico's Ryan Lizza, Rachael Bade, and Eugene Daniels write. "We're told that McCarthy allies won't forget this anytime soon."

Another of McCarthy's speaker-battle concessions has further complicated his ability to get bills passed: A new rule that expands the ability for any member to add amendments to a bill.

"I've got mixed feelings," Rep. Bacon told CNN. "On the positive side, it gets more people involved. They feel like they have a voice. That's good. I think, too, though, on the downside, it's taking some of our bills that should be more bipartisan, but through the amendment process is made more partisan."

In short, while McCarthy is experiencing the natural challenges of leading a narrow majority during one of the most contentious, partisan eras in modern politics, there's considerable evidence that the same steps he took to assume his position of authority may end up hampering his ability to do the very job he gave up so much to have.


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