Kevin McCarthy faces a dilemma

Extreme members of his Republican caucus have demands that moderates won’t support, and how McCarthy handles it may determine whether he remains as Speaker of the House.
Kevin McCarthy sits in the White House with President Joe Biden.
Kevin McCarthy's gambit to assuage his critics — calling for an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden — has not worked, writes columnist Sandy Maisel.

Republicans in the House of Representatives are confronted with two critical issues — the impeachment inquiry into President Biden and the threat of a government shutdown — that may determine the future of their leadership and the outcome of the 2024 congressional elections.

Washington observers predict chaos, and at the center of the chaos is Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). McCarthy needed 15 ballots over four days to ascend to the speakership in January and his precarious hold on that position depends on support from the most conservative Republican congressmen, members of the Freedom Caucus who doubt McCarthy’s ideological purity.

McCarthy needed their votes to win the speakership and still needs them to maintain it because the GOP majority is so thin. If he loses five votes, his majority disappears.

A notebox that reads L. Sandy Maisel will write a regular column for The Maine Monitor about the upcoming election season.

The conservatives are leveraging that narrow margin to exercise power now. 

They have demanded that the Speaker open an inquiry into the impeachment of Biden, and that  significant cuts in pending appropriations bills must be accepted to get them passed.

McCarthy is very conservative but also a pragmatist. He wants to keep Republicans in the majority and himself in the Speaker’s chair. And there lies his dilemma.

Last spring McCarthy and Biden negotiated a deal to extend the debt ceiling, an agreement that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Democratic leaders in both chambers signed on to.

Now, as the fiscal year draws to a close and spending bills must be passed before Oct. 1 to avert a government shutdown, McCarthy’s most conservative Republican colleagues in the House want to renege on that agreement, cutting spending further. 

They do not care about the deal but rather seek to shake up the system, to cut spending and government programs.

Specifically, they want to cut aid to Ukraine and “zero out” the salaries of certain Cabinet secretaries. It is clear that bills containing these cuts, or other provisions the conservatives are demanding, will not become law. 

McConnell has said Senate Republicans will go along with the bipartisan spending caps agreed to last spring, and Senate Democrats and Biden would never accede to any of the conservatives’ demands.

But the Freedom Caucus and their House allies want to take a stand. And they want more. They want to impeach Biden.

Here is McCarthy’s predicament. If he does not give in to any of the demands, various conservative members have promised to move to vacate the speakership; enough Republicans agree with these demands that McCarthy would lose the majority he needs to remain Speaker.

But if he gives in to the demands, and forces votes on these issues, a number of the more moderate Republicans, particularly the 18 who were elected in districts Biden carried in 2020, would put their re-election chances at risk.  

McCarthy took the first step Tuesday, calling for an impeachment inquiry, hoping calling on Republican committee chairs to begin the process would assuage his critics without forcing anyone to vote at this stage.  

His gambit has not worked. Congressman Chip Roy (R-Tex.), Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), the leading McCarthy critics, have said in one way or another that the impeachment inquiry will not deter them from seeking spending cuts. As Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) put it, “Him starting an impeachment inquiry gives him no — zero — cushion, relief, brace as it applies to spending.”

McCarthy cannot assuage his critics, and the outcomes they desire have no — zero — chance of attaining their ultimate goals, significant budget cuts and removing Biden through impeachment. But they are willing to force a government shutdown to make their principled stand.  

The history of government shutdowns is clear. The party that causes the shutdown, from Newt Gingrich’s stand against President Clinton in 1995-1996, to John Boehner’s against Barack Obama in his first year in office, to the Republican-led 35-day shutdown under President Trump, has never won. Eventually they concede, the government reopens and their party is blamed for the hardships they caused and is punished in the next election.

The inevitability of that outcome is especially clear now because the Senate Republicans favor the bipartisan agreement reached last spring and are not supporting McCarthy on the spending bills or the impeachment inquiry, a number of Republican senators already declaring it is premature at best. House Republican conservatives are out on their own.  

McCarthy’s initial actions have been aimed at protecting his speakership, desperately trying to calm conservative demands. The speakership has been his career goal; as he did when he made large concessions to gain the votes he needed to win the chair originally, he seems willing to do most anything to hold it.

But if he goes along with the conservatives, his party may lose its majority in November 2024, because the consequences may affect the re-election chances of far more members than he can afford to lose.

McCarthy may indeed be between a rock and a hard place. That is the nature of leading a small majority that includes ideological extremists. It is a test of leadership. It is the same test of leadership that Speakers Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Boehner (R-Ohio) faced; each refused to give in to extremists, but left the speakership because the fight was not worth the cost.

But party leaders can emerge stronger when challenged. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faced down her critics from the left; she agreed to give up her position after one more term, but she did not give in on policy. 

She held her caucus together, bringing her most progressive members back to the party line. She had a slightly larger majority to work with than McCarthy, but it is still a testimony to her skills that she was able to negotiate with her party’s left wing and keep the party united. That is what strong leaders do.

McCarthy could well draw lessons from her experience as he navigates the turbulent waters ahead of him.


L. Sandy Maisel

L. Sandy Maisel is the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government (emeritus) at Colby College, where he taught for fifty years and served as the founding director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs. He is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including From Obscurity to Oblivion: Running in the Congressional Primary, which chronicles his own unsuccessful campaign for Congress in Maine's first district. He and his wife, Colby professor Patrice Franko, live in Rome, Maine.
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