From Strongest To Weakest

[ Posted Monday, December 12th, 2022 – 16:02 UTC ]

We're about to see a rather dramatic change in the leadership of the United States House of Representatives, and I am not merely referring to the change in political control which will happen when the new Congress is seated in January -- because the more dramatic shift is going to be from one of the strongest speakers in living memory to one of the weakest. And that's only if Kevin McCarthy wins the vote to become speaker at all (which is currently in doubt -- a rather salient measure of his weakness, in fact).

When the new House convenes, the clowns will be driving the car. The inmates will be running the asylum. There will be no enforceable rules or limits on the most extreme members of the Republican caucus, other than limits self-imposed by a revolt of the GOP moderates (who still have to run in swing districts). What will be completely absent is any sort of leadership from the top, since next to Kevin McCarthy, jellyfish look like models of spinal fortitude.

Republicans have the majority, but by an awfully small margin. Only five defections from the GOP caucus will leave them short of a majority of 218 on any particular issue. And the first big issue to be decided is will be who will become speaker. And at least five Republicans have already publicly announced they will not be supporting McCarthy, which would mean multiple votes for the speakership until someone emerges who can garner 218 votes.

McCarthy has a GOP challenger for the job already, but Representative Andy Biggs knows his bid is not going to succeed either. In an earlier intra-caucus vote for leadership, McCarthy won but Biggs got 31 votes. That's nowhere near even half the caucus, but it is far beyond what would be needed to deny McCarthy the speakership he so craves. Biggs, according to HuffPost has a plan, though -- knowing he can't win, he's going to screw things up for McCarthy in order to force Republicans to settle for some unnamed third candidate who will be some sort of knight in shining armor galloping in on his white steed to save the party from themselves. No, really.

This isn't as fantastical as it might sound, because that is precisely how the party wound up with Paul Ryan as speaker. John Boehner was essentially forced out of the job by the Tea Partiers, but no Tea Partier was ever going to win support from the whole caucus, so they all settled on Ryan as a compromise.

But there really aren't any Republicans of Ryan's stature in the House today who could serve in such a mediating role. And even if there were, they'd be pretty foolish to agree. Just ask Paul Ryan whether shepherding the Tea Partiers worked out for him or not. And today's GOP radicals are far more radical than the Tea Partiers ever were.

McCarthy is, by all reports, working hard behind the scenes to line up the votes he needs. He did score one big success early on, by convincing Marjorie Taylor Greene to support him (in exchange for her being reinstated to her committee assignments). She obviously sees herself as both a leader of and an emissary to the whackadoodle wing of the Republican Party these days, so her support definitely helps McCarthy's bid.

But her support is going to hinge on whether McCarthy ever tries to discipline her or not. And she's obviously already feeling her wild oats in that regard -- she appeared at an event this weekend where she said if she had been in control of organizing the January 6th insurrection, the participants would have had lots of guns and would have succeeded in overturning an American presidential election. McCarthy, quite obviously, simply cannot afford to say a negative word about Greene's comments right now, because he so desperately needs her support. And that dynamic is only going to get worse if he becomes speaker.

Representative Matt Gaetz, one of the Republicans who has said he will not support McCarthy's bid, was pretty rude to him after a recent caucus meeting. Gaetz tweeted a photo of McCarthy out with the caption: "Cavin' McCarthy." This led Michael Steele -- a former Republican National Committee chair -- to respond by loosely translating what Gaetz was communicating: "Everyone knows a punk when they see one." This is the level of disrespect McCarthy inspires even before he has begun, in other words.

The two most possible outcomes in January are that McCarthy somehow cajoles enough of his own lunatic fringe into voting for him -- by offering them the sun, the moon, and the stars, no doubt -- but by doing so weakens his own position in the party (meaning Republicans will feel no compunction about running roughshod over anything McCarthy begs them to do). Or we'll see multiple votes for speaker which McCarthy will not be able to win, which could lead to absolute chaos. People are already gaming out what could happen in such an instance, such as some Democrats saving the day for the moderate Republican faction by agreeing to vote for some less-offensive Republican leader (again, no names have been mentioned for this possibly-mythological creature). Personally, if I were a House Democrat, I would tell the Republicans that the only Republican I could possibly support for speaker would be Liz Cheney (just to see their heads explode).

Kidding aside, though, and no matter the outcome, this leadership battle is going to take its toll. The most likely outcome is still that McCarthy manages somehow to crawl over the 218-vote finish line, whether on the first vote or some subsequent vote (McCarthy is already reportedly gaming out what he should do if he loses the first vote -- just keep on voting over and over again, or perhaps call a recess until he has corralled enough votes). All other possibilities should be seen as rather remote, at least at this point (which could always change).

But what will the radicals demand of McCarthy in order to secure their vote? One big thing they've been asking for would be rather astonishing -- a rule change that would essentially allow for an easy "vote of no confidence" to be held at any time (just like in parliamentary systems), which could depose a sitting speaker at the drop of a hat. McCarthy knows this would all but cripple any power such a speaker might wield, and so he has reportedly refused to even entertain such a notion. But this too could change at any time. If he's still short of 218 on January 2nd, he may agree to just about anything to gain the gavel he's been eyeing for years now.

Which means that even if Kevin McCarthy does manage to become speaker, he may have completely undercut his own leadership position in order to get there. The first time he was forced into striking a bargain with the Democrats (remember, the Senate is still going to be in Democratic hands, and the budgets are still going to have to be passed), he might well be unceremoniously chucked out of the job for being insufficiently pure (as far as the far-right fringe of the party is concerned).

Kevin McCarthy already cannot discipline his own members. He's not very good at corralling their votes either -- nowhere near as good as Nancy Pelosi has been (whether in the majority or in the minority). And he'll have to give in to the demands of the radicals to do whatever they feel like doing (mostly investigating Democrats that enrage them), no matter how much the moderates complain.

Even for a strong-willed personality, that might be a recipe for failure. But nobody has ever used the term "strong-willed" when speaking of McCarthy. McCarthy's biggest problem is twofold -- two sides of the same spineless coin. Nobody within his own caucus respects him, and likewise no Republican fears him. The difference between that and how Democrats saw Nancy Pelosi is going to be striking. Effective leadership means utilizing both carrots and stick, but McCarthy's stick is going to be a wet noodle, and he'll already have given the store away before he even starts his new job just to get there. So my humble prediction is we are going to witness a shift not only in party in January, but a jarring shift from one of the most effective speakers ever to one of the least effective.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


20 Comments on “From Strongest To Weakest”

  1. [1] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    If I was Kevin McCarthy I would say to the Republican Caucus,

    Look, I would like to be Speaker, but not at the cost of giving away the power I should have to guide our Caucus towards serving the American people effectively. So if y’all have a better candidate that, vote for the candidate! If not…you know how to reach me.

  2. [2] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    Thomas Massie (R-KY) has already stated in public that he considers himself a caucus of one. He's planning some WRong Paul-flavored death cult nuttiness. He wants to take on Big Milk because we need the freedom to drink unpasteurized milk.

  3. [3] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Personally, if I were a House Democrat, I would tell the Republicans that the only Republican I could possibly support for speaker would be Liz Cheney (just to see their heads explode).

    Thing of it is, one does not have to be an elected member on Congress to be Speaker. Remember Repugs talking about installing Trump in the position?

  4. [4] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    And this kind of insanity is why I say Stock up on the Orville Reddenbacher — watching the GQP implode is going to be sooo much fun! In fact that’s why we’re not going to see #TwoBrainCellsRubbingTogether in this space for some months…

  5. [5] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    Where is Willie Brown when you need him? A slim majority of the other party never stopped him...

  6. [6] 
    andygaus wrote:

    After the White House said that Miss Space Laser's comments about how she would have accomplished the overturning of the election were kind of unpatriotic, she replied that the White House "doesn't know how sarcasm works." I would hope that the White House might respond, "Yes, we know how sarcasm works. For starters, it's funny, and if it isn't at all funny, it isn't sarcasm."

  7. [7] 
    andygaus wrote:

    We need to bring back Caligula. If he made his horse a senator, surely he would know how to install a horse as Speaker of the House. Knowing that the horse would have to be Speaker, he would presumably choose Mr. Ed.

  8. [8] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    well, they've had reboots of everything else.

  9. [9] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Great. Thanks, I’m old enough that your comment immediately inserted the theme song into my mind…and it won’t stop!It’s the downside of growing up during the Golden Age of Television (aka The Birth of the Electronic Babysitter.)

  10. [10] 
    Kick wrote:


    Personally, if I were a House Democrat, I would tell the Republicans that the only Republican I could possibly support for speaker would be Liz Cheney (just to see their heads explode).

    Darth's daughter becoming the leader of the First Order? Unpossible! *heads explode*

  11. [11] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    this whole change in leadership thing reminds me of season five of cobra kai, which i absolutely loved but is also more than a little bit ridiculous. it's this weird combination of gratuitous action, melodrama and kitch that has characterized the trump era.

  12. [12] 
    John M wrote:

    Traditionally, each party's caucus or conference selects a candidate for the speakership from among its senior leaders prior to the roll call.

    To be elected speaker a candidate must receive an absolute majority of the votes of ALL those PRESENT and voting. They do not have to be a member of the House themselves to be elected speaker. 218 votes is a majority in the case of all 435 members being present. LESS if they are NOT.

    Historically there have been a few times during the past century where a person received a majority of the votes cast, and thus won the election, while failing to obtain a majority of the full House.

    The most recent was in January 2021 (117th Congress), when Nancy Pelosi was elected with 216 votes (as opposed to 218).

    They keep calling a roll call until someone is elected by a majority of those present and voting.

    What's the chance a group of moderate Republicans get so fed up that they walk out of the House or abstain and the Democrats elect Hakeem Jeffries the new Speaker of the House in a 213 to 212 vote???

    The real magic number for McCarthy is not losing 5 seats out of 222 but more like 10 seats from his 222 vote Republican majority.

  13. [13] 
    John M wrote:

    OR the radical Trump Republicans end up with the unintended result of a Democratic speaker by torpedoing McCarthy??? 212 Republicans vote for McCarthy, 10 Republicans vote for Andy Biggs, and 213 Democrats vote for Hakeem Jeffries. Doesn't that mean Hakeem wins the Speakership?

    What do you think Chris??? Anybody else???

  14. [14] 
    John M wrote:

    By the way, in the 2021 vote, Pelosi won over McCarthy 216 to 209 out of only 427 members from a total of 435, being present. So only a majority of 214 was needed to win.

    I just realized I probably answered my own question. Those 10 voting for Biggs would have to abstain in order to lower the majority threshold for Jeffries to win. But who knows what train wreck could happen???

  15. [15] 
    John M wrote:

    One other thought on Ukraine. Do you know how utterly devastated Germany, Japan, and South Korea all were after World War Two and the Korean War? They were all much worse off than Ukraine is now. Lviv in the west has hardly been touched compared to say, Kherson. The USA was responsible (owned if I am using Elizabeth's correct word) for Germany and Japan for what 25 years? Look at them and South Korea now. All 3 powerhouses in every sense of the word. Given Ukraine membership and support in NATO and the European Union, how will Ukraine look 50 years from now???

  16. [16] 
    John M wrote:

    As I understand it, if a House member votes "present" as opposed to actually voting for someone's name like McCarthy or Biggs, it is as if the member is not there, i.e. abstains from voting at all, and removes them from the 435 vote total. So it becomes a majority of 434 House members, if one member votes "present." Is that correct???

  17. [17] 
    Kick wrote:

    John M

    What's the chance a group of moderate Republicans get so fed up that they walk out of the House or abstain and the Democrats elect Hakeem Jeffries the new Speaker of the House in a 213 to 212 vote???

    No chance for 213 Democrats since Representative A. Donald McEachin died in November after winning re-election to VA-4. His seat will be vacant until a special election in February.

  18. [18] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    whatever the numbers, the prospect of a coalition house (or whatever it would be called in a non-parliamentary system) would be exciting if it were to emerge as a real possibility.

  19. [19] 
    Kick wrote:



    After reading some of the texts these Republican House members sent to Mark Meadows about overturning the 2020 election, I wouldn't put anything past these brainwashed MAGA morons. I cannot overstate the depths of the bone-deep stupidity of these bizarre full-on crazy conspiracy paranoid insurrectionist traitors.

  20. [20] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:


    Do you mean all of them saying that Trump should declare "Marshall law"? I laughed and laughed for hours after reading that news! Heck, it still makes me chuckle even now! Idiots!

    How these folks are able to get elected is a mystery to me. It makes me believe that there is definitely someone pulling the strings and they are just the political puppets that they appear to be. Now who it is pulling those strings is anyone's guess. I'd say someone for the Koch organization if I had to guess.

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