Some days House Speaker Kevin McCarthy must watch his House lecture in awe and think: Are they maniacs? trying lose most?
Thursday may well have been one of those days, as far-right crusaders packed the National Defense Authorization Act with divisive, culture warfare amendments targeting abortion access, transgender healthcare and diversity training. The annual NDAA usually gathers strong bipartisan support, passing without excessive turbulence during the last 60 years. Last week, the House Freedom Caucus and its allies worked to fit more poison pills into the package than a fentanyl mill in an alley. After much drama and much futile pleading by McCarthy with his right flank, the House passed the bill Friday, 219-210, in a largely partisan vote.
Rest assured, the show is far from over.
The odds that the bill’s extreme measures will pass the Democratic Senate and the White House are worse than the odds that Mike Pence will win the presidency next year. So less than zero. But the conservatives in the House of Representatives are not looking to make serious political gains here, at least not the conservatives who understand how a divided government works. They’re looking to cause trouble, to show that they’re loud, uncompromising fighters for the conservative cause. They’re also looking to make a point, one directed in large part at McCarthy, who they remain furious with over the debt-ceiling deal he negotiated with Democrats in May. And if they need to jeopardize their nascent majority to make that point, then so be it. Life is full of difficult compromises.
McCarthy’s debt negotiation machinations this spring won applause from many political observers: What leadership skills! Maybe we underestimated it! Maybe he can really keep his conference online! But his hardliners were furious that he had sold them out, and quickly vowed to make the House as dysfunctional as possible, even if it meant bogging down the political goals of his own team. His hostage-taking and performances by him have been a warning to Mr. McCarthy: fool us once and we’ll turn this chamber into a freak show that does nothing just to teach you a lesson. Try to fool us twice, and things will get In fact dark and strange
This focus on purity over progress doesn’t just make life uncomfortable for the speaker. He’s making the entire Republican conference look like a pack of filibustering fanatics. This can work well in deep MAGA districts, but not so well in battleground areas. Those are certainly getting rarer. But with such a skinny majority, House Tories are playing with fire. All the Democrats need to do is flip a handful of seats to wrest the gavel out of Mr. McCarthy’s hand. They could, say, make up some of the ground unexpectedly lost to the Republicans in New York in last year’s midterm elections (starting with George Santos’s district). And they might pick up a seat or two thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act that can drive to several southern states redraw their constituencies to address sketchy gerrymandering. (Alabama has already received its marching orders.)
Even if the Republicans hold on to the House, where, to be fair, a certain level of lunacy is expected, the antics of the wingers are doing nothing to help the party brand. Many, many Americans are tired of political chaos and performative shake-ups. And many are particularly weary of the abortion issue, which drew key numbers of undecided voters to Democrats in the midterms. But time and time again, McCarthy’s troops seem intent on pointing out that the Republican Party is a group of bomb-throwing fringe townspeople who are actively trying not to govern. Undecided voters are also not usually all that interested in sit-and-do-nothing Congresses.
Some Republican members of the House are enthusiastic about these political games. Nancy Mace from South Carolina, for example, was overheard On Thursday he dropped all sorts of colorful language, including an F-bomb or two, about people being forced to vote on the abortion amendment, according to Politico. Although Mrs. Mace didn’t bother to abbreviate the pejorative of her. Nor, it should be noted, did she risk voting against the offending amendment, let alone the bill in general. “It’s not going to pass the Senate anyway; it doesn’t matter”, she told the hill.
It doesn’t matter. Well, except that Mrs. Mace can expect things to get much worse. As much blood and tears as may be shed in passing the NDAA, they pale in comparison to the carnage anticipated in the upcoming cage match over government funding. Hardliners have already made it clear that they are going to cause as much trouble as possible in pursuit of their targets outside of the mainstream. In protest of the debt deal, a pack of conservatives ground action on the floor of the Chamber stopped for several days in June while lobbying (or, if you prefer, blackmailing) the speaker into giving them more power — including more room to cut spending beyond the levels set out in the debt ceiling agreement. With the conservative knife to his throat, Mr. McCarthy has allowed the conference to move forward with appropriation proposals that do just that.
Adding to the drama, a passel of conservative members sent a letter to Mr. McCarthy last week, setting its conditions, including much lower levels of spending, to finance the government. Spoiler alert: none were intended to make the process easier or more efficient.
But, after falling out with his supporters on the debt deal, the speaker now appears to have retreated into a policy of appeasement. This bodes ill for the government to continue to run smoothly in the coming months, and for any future legislative efforts.
There’s no point in feeling sorry for Mr. McCarthy. He is a political creature. Going into this job, he knew the risks of negotiating with and bowing down to ideological terrorists. And he was apparently fine with that. His party is earning whatever electoral comeuppance he receives. But it is shameful that the rest of the United States ends up being forced to pay a price as well.
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