Crisis in Congress – Who Will Be the Next House Speaker?

Kevin McCarthyThis week Republican wunderkind Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdrew from the race for House Speaker just before the vote was to be taken.

His boast on Fox News about the Republicans putting together the special committee on Benghazi to discredit Hillary Clinton seems to have done him in. Opposition to his comments by Republican leaders was swift and severe.

McCarthy would need to receive a majority of 218 votes in the House to be elected as Speaker. The Democrats can all be counted on to cast their votes for Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader. With 247 Republicans in the House, that leaves a margin of less than 30 dissenting votes on the Republican side to achieve a majority. (Remember that John Boehner narrowly survived a leadership vote earlier this year when 25 fellow House Republicans voted against him.)

Daniel WebeterBut on Wednesday the House Freedom Caucus (with appx. 40 members) announced that it was backing Daniel Webster for speaker, with one of its members, Rep. Paul Labrador, informing CNN that the group would be voting as a block for their candidate instead of for McCarthy. Sensing that he could not unify the party behind him, McCarthy quickly withdrew his name.

But there is more to the story than that. It is possible that McCarthy was blackmailed into withdrawing from the race.

The previous day (Oct. 6) Rep. Walter Jones of N. Carolina sent a letter to the Republican Conference Chairman

asking that any candidate for Speaker of the House, majority leader and majority whip withdraw himself from the leadership election if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican Conference, and the House of Representatives if they become public.

Then, just after 8 am on Thursday morning (the morning of the vote) McCarthy received an email from Steve Baer, a well-known conservative GOP donor with the subject line: “Kevin, why not resign like Bob Livingston?” (a reference to the Republican candidate who was set to replace Newt Gingrich as House Speaker in Jan 1999 until it was revealed that he was having an extra-marital affair; he resigned from Congress a few months later). The email contained a series of links to stories alleging that McCarthy was having an affair with Rep. Renee Ellmers of N. Carolina, and was copied to 91 influential conservatives both in and outside Congress.

Although both Ellmers and McCarthy have stated that these accusations are unfounded, it may nevertheless explain McCarthy’s abrupt withdrawal from the Speaker’s race without further explanation.

YoungGuns_Cover_DV_20100831125157Until McCarthy’s now infamous statement on Fox News, he was seen as one of the fast-rising stars within the Republican Party. He was one of the celebrated “Young Guns” who, along with Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan in the book they co-authored in 2010, became the standard-bearers of a new generation of conservative Republican leaders.

McCarthy rose rapidly through the ranks of party leadership. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2006, served as Republican Chief Deputy Whip from 2009 to 2011, then as House Majority Whip from 2011 to 2014.

Eric Cantor became House Majority Leader in 2011, but lost his seat in 2014 to a more radical Tea Party ‘outlier’ in the primaries who then replaced him in the House. McCarthy took over Cantor’s vacated #2 position as House Majority Leader in August 2014, and was until this week poised to assume the top position as Speaker of the House.

But much like Cantor, McCarthy has had his political future torpedoed by a discontented, vocal, and more radically conservative faction within his own party. It was the House Freedom Caucus specifically that took the lead in orchestrating McCarthy’s leadership demise.

Capitol Hill Re-Groups One Day After Surprise In Speaker's RaceMembers of Congress have historically divided into different party caucus groups to work together in promoting specific agendas. In 1973 the Republican Study Committee was formed as part of a rising conservative movement within the Republican Party to oppose the moderate Republicans who dominated the House at that time.

With the Republican Party’s swing to the right in recent years, more than three-quarters of House Republicans (some 170 members) now belong to the RSC, far outstripping the less than 50 House Republicans belonging to the moderate Main Street Partnership.

But many of the recently elected House members (largely from the Tea Party faction) have come to see the RSC as not conservative enough for their taste. After many months of planning, in January of this year they formed a splinter group called the House Freedom Caucus to pursue a decidedly right-wing agenda.

The HFC keeps its membership list secret, but is known to number around 40 members. With such a large voting block, they exert considerable weight, and can keep any proposed legislation in the House that does not have Democratic support from passing. A month after its formation, members of the HFC pushed the House majority close to a partial government shutdown in opposing President Obama’s executive order on immigration.

An angry John Boehner struck back, relieving some HFC members of their House duties. This led to near open warfare between the HFC and Speaker. Over the summer one of the affected HFC members, Rep. Mark Meadows of N. Carolina, filed a motion to oust Boehner from the speaker’s chair. Boehner ended up announcing his resignation before the motion could be voted on.

Now that the House Freedom Caucus has achieved Boehner’s resignation, and has turned against Kevin McCarthy as the front runner to replace him, Republicans are scrambling for a new candidate who can receive the required majority – which means satisfying both the conservative and extreme right-wing factions within the party. With the House Freedom Caucus holding the decisive block of votes, that appears to be a near impossibility.

Paul_RyanSome party conservatives have pleaded with Paul Ryan, the remaining “Young Gun,” to stand for nomination, but he has steadfastly refused. He knows that the speaker will face enormous pressures in the weeks to come. As Alexander Bolton noted this week in The Hill,

Congress has less than a month to raise the nation’s debt limit and only two months to find a deal to avoid a government shutdown.

If the new speaker cooperates with Democrats or the President to avoid a shutdown, he will face the wrath of House ultra-conservatives who will likely demand his immediate resignation. And if he allows a government shutdown to take place, he and other Republicans may incur the wrath of the entire nation. Either way, such a step could easily ruin Paul Ryan’s political career.

The House Freedom Caucus is playing a strong hand. On Thursday Politico published a “questionnaire” distributed by the HFC that seeks a commitment from any new speaker that any increases in the debt ceiling would be tied to cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Cutting these benefits is viewed negatively by the public at large and even by some Republicans. But so would be refusing to increase the debt ceiling and causing America to default on its debts.

The questionnaire also asks,

Would you ensure that House-passed appropriations bills do not contain funding for Planned Parenthood, unconstitutional amnesty, the Iran deal and Obamacare?

In other words, it asks the House Speaker to commit to not funding the government unless Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, Obama’s immigration orders and the Iran deal are all defunded in the process. As Judd Legum notes in an article in ThinkProgress,

This is essentially the Ted Cruz strategy which prompted at 16-day shutdown in 2013. This would now be enshrined as the official policy of the Speaker Of The House.

It would be dangerous for any untested Speaker to shepherd such radical legislation through the House. There is sure to be an enormous backlash as well as some unforeseen casualties.

But right now the House Freedom Caucus holds all the cards. And it will be difficult to elect a new speaker without their cooperation.

Interesting – and perilous – times lie ahead.

Photo credits: Scott Applewhite/AP; Andrew Harnik/AP; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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