Will Democrats save Kevin McCarthy's speakership?

On the eve of a likely government shutdown, the speaker is left with no good choices

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks to reporters in Statuary Hall
(Image credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has never had a very firm hold on his job. He won the post in January only after 15 rounds of balloting, and only by agreeing to rules that let any member of his Republican caucus force a vote to kick him out. Now — on the eve of a likely government shutdown — one of McCarthy’s fiercest GOP critics, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, is threatening to call that vote if McCarthy compromises on the right’s budget demands. “This place has been poorly led,” Gaetz said Tuesday. Can anybody save McCarthy’s faltering speakership? 

How about House Democrats?

Maybe. CNN reported that some House Democrats might be willing to “cut a deal to help McCarthy stave off a right-wing revolt.” With his slim majority, a few Democrats could help McCarthy counterbalance GOP defectors to keep his job. But they’d have a few demands of their own for the speaker in exchange for their support. “It’s not just going to have to be out of the kindness of our hearts,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) 

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Why would Democrats try to save McCarthy? Call it a “lesser-evil” situation. "No love for Kevin,” an anonymous House member told Axios. “But [there is] concern about more chaos, and who might take his place if he is booted." But Democrats privately say McCarthy would have to compromise on federal spending levels to get their support — and compromising with Democrats would all but ensure that Gaetz and his allies come for the speaker’s job. 

What the commentators said

One problem with this scenario: “Democrats really don’t like McCarthy” Steve Benen observed at MSNBC. He is viewed as a “weak and mindless partisan” who rolls over too easily for extremists in his party. But it’s true that if he’s kicked out, “McCarthy’s successor might very well be worse.” So it’s likely that Democratic members will approach both McCarthy and Gaetz behind the scenes to see who is willing to offer them the better deal. “At this point, it’s an open question as to when or whether this showdown will happen”

“The Democrats have power,” Joan McCarter wrote at Daily Kos. They should use it to extract some concessions from McCarthy. Among them: “An end to the Biden impeachment farce.” They should also get him to fully fund support for Ukraine, and to pass a bill eliminating the possibility of another shutdown next year. That would let the government function normally, for a bit at least. “It’s not too much to ask in a rational world.”

One way or another, The Washington Post editorialized, McCarthy is going to need Democrats soon. Passing a bill to keep the government open — or to reopen it after a shutdown — “involves bipartisan agreement.” And moderate lawmakers in both parties “represent a much broader swath of the country than the ultra-partisans.” McCarthy doesn’t want to empower those moderates, though, because “resisters would move to oust him.” There may be no other choice. At least getting a deal done with Democratic votes would allow the speaker to “win over the public by putting the nation first.”

What's next?

Not all Democrats are on board. “I’m not prepared to save him,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said on MSNBC. And it’s not clear that the speaker would be willing to do what’s needed to get Democratic support. He recently dismissed a question from CNN about whether he will need that help. “I am not worried about that,” he said.

Maybe he should be. NBC News pointed out that McCarthy has two choices at this point: Alienate his party’s right-wing fringe and keep government open “by striking a deal that Democrats can support,” or save his job by letting the government shut down. “He has a career-altering decision to make,” one House Republican told the network. There may be no good way out for McCarthy, one House aide suggested: “Democrats, by voting to protect McCarthy, could make his position within the GOP untenable either way.”

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