Sep 13, 2023 - Politics & Policy

McCarthy's crumbling house of cards

Photo illustration of Kevin McCarthy standing looking up at a collapsing house of cards.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

House Republicans have fallen into a state of paralyzed chaos on their second day back from recess, with no obvious exit ramp in a government spending fight of their own creation.

Why it matters: On the first night of the House speaker election — after hard-right rebels denied Kevin McCarthy the gavel on three consecutive ballots — we published a piece headlined, "The ungovernable House GOP." Eight months later, that sentiment has never rung more true.

Consider these four developments:

  • The House was forced to cancel a vote Wednesday on advancing funding for the Pentagon — typically viewed as the least controversial appropriations bill — after Freedom Caucus Republicans rebelled over spending levels.
  • Another typically uncontroversial appropriations bill funding agriculture has been scrapped entirely over an internal GOP debate about abortion policy, pitting moderates against conservatives.
  • McCarthy's announcement of an impeachment inquiry into President Biden — which he bet would mollify conservatives itching for a government shutdown — appears to have backfired, with some Republicans trashing it as a "distraction."
  • GOP leadership now is advocating for a short-term continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown on Sept. 30. But if McCarthy puts such a bill on the floor, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has vowed to trigger daily votes to oust him as speaker.

The big picture: At the core of McCarthy's concessions to conservative rebels was an agreement to vote on all 12 appropriations bills individually, rather than continue the tradition of passing a massive "omnibus" each year.

  • The trouble is that the fractious GOP conference can't even agree what each of those bills should look like, leading to a multi-car pileup that has drawn more attention to the party's divisions.
  • The Senate, meanwhile, is chugging along with its own appropriations bills, voting 85-12 Tuesday to open debate on a package combining funding for several agencies.

Between the lines: "The more dysfunctional the House is, the more it empowers the Senate to determine what becomes law," tweeted Liam Donovan, a GOP consultant who closely tracks the House's right-wing bomb-throwers.

  • If the Freedom Caucus truly opposed an omnibus, Donovan suggested, members would support whatever appropriations bills could get 218 votes to pass.
  • "In reality, failure is preferable to incremental victory because it validates" their view that both the Republican and Democratic establishment are corrupt and content with the status quo, Donovan said.

The bottom line: Throughout his speakership, McCarthy has consistently defied skeptics by averting a catastrophic debt default, passing key messaging bills and keeping his right flank at bay with the promise of radical change.

  • The fragile house of cards he's built — piling ever higher with each new concession — is now on the verge of crashing down.
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