Poor Kevin

[ Posted Wednesday, September 20th, 2023 – 15:55 UTC ]

It wasn't supposed to be like this. We were told that, a while back, when Republicans took over control of the House of Representatives. Things were going to be different! Republicans were going to show us all how Congress is supposed to work. The 12 appropriations bills that make up the federal budget were going to go through "regular order" and be voted on one by one instead of all being swept into a giant "omnibus" bill or just largely ignored by the use of a "continuing resolution" (C.R.). That was all going to be a thing of the past, as Congress returned to regular order and appropriated funding the correct and proper way. Washington would bask in the sunshine of regular order and the citizenry would reward the staunch Republicans who had shown Congress the way out of the darkness. That was the way it was supposed to be!

Obviously, things aren't exactly working out according to this plan. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who in all likelihood had to make specific promises to his members about following regular order (we don't know, since all these promises were given behind closed doors and remain secret) in order to get elected to the speaker's chair, is now running out of time and running out of options. And strictly following regular order simply isn't one of them, given the time remaining.

McCarthy's task was always rather impossible, so this outcome should come as no real surprise to anyone. The same dynamic has been around every time Republicans have held the House in the past decade or so. First it was the Tea Party, now it is the MAGA faction, but whatever they are called there have always been a group of hardcore GOP purists that have been impossible to appease. They refuse half a loaf. They refuse seven-eighths of a loaf. They refuse 99 percent of a loaf. If it isn't exactly what they want -- no more and no less then they walk away from it and refuse to vote for it. This has done more to stymie the Republican Party's agenda throughout this period than any Democratic effort. They shoot themselves in the foot over and over again -- so as I said, this should come as no real surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.

The hardcore purists' problem is the same one virtually every single time. They simply do not know what they are fighting for. They didn't band together and approach McCarthy with a simple: "This is our one line in the sand -- we absolutely have to have this or we walk." They didn't come with even a list of bullet points: "Here are our top three priorities." This is because the hotheads can't even agree among themselves what their biggest priorities are. And because these priorities are malleable and they change, over time, as they keep moving the goalposts to ever-more-impossible positions.

McCarthy has one of the smallest majorities any speaker has had to rely on -- if he loses only four or five votes (depending on who is attending that day) he cannot pass bills with only Republican support. And there are easily more than five MAGA hotheads in his caucus.

The original GOP plan was always a fantasy, but you could see how starry-eyed Republican representatives could at least believe in it: use their chairmanship of the committees to hammer together a solidly Republican budget, chock-full of all sorts of conservative goodies, and then move the bills to the floor where all 12 of them would pass long before the deadline. Then they would send these bills over to the Senate and refuse to compromise on any of them. The Senate would -- unless they shut the government down -- eventually have to accept the GOP spending plan unedited, and then they'd send it to President Joe Biden, who would have to sign it or else he would be the one responsible for shutting the government down. In this scenario, House Republicans would piously state: "We've already done our job, and we did it through regular order. It's now up to the Senate and the president to make sure there is a budget in place for the next fiscal year."

As I said, this is an utter fantasy. There is no world in which a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president are just going to shrug their shoulders and accept a purely partisan GOP House budget. But the fantasy still remains alive, although in slightly modified form.

Passing all the budget bills would have been a show of strength for McCarthy. It would have clearly laid out the GOP agenda with the caucus unified behind it. It would have at least given him a decent bargaining position in the inevitable negotiations to hammer out a compromise. But this week he couldn't even get the Defense Department's budget passed in an individual bill -- which is surprising, since funding the Pentagon is not normally a contentious issue for Republicans. Time is running out, meaning there is no way McCarthy's going to finish the month with all 12 bills passed through his chamber.

So he is now attempting a fallback position. He is trying to push through a Republican-only continuing resolution which would fund the government for one more month -- until Hallowe'en, scarily enough -- in order to buy some time and avoid a government shutdown. But continuing resolutions are anathema to some of the MAGA hotheads. McCarthy tried his hardest -- he hammered out an agreement between the moderate Republicans (who do not want a government shutdown) and the hardliners, but the negotiator for the hardliners didn't speak for all of them (since they cannot decide even among themselves precisely what they are even fighting for). So the effort has already gone down in flames.

Just to be clear: this was not a compromise C.R. in any way, shape, or form. It was a purely Republican C.R. which reflected their priorities -- all the ones the Senate is not going to vote for. This C.R. would never have become law. It was designed as a fallback bargaining position for McCarthy, so he could still go to the negotiations with the White House and Senate and say: "This is what my caucus is demanding, and we are unified behind it." He cannot say that without the C.R., which just goes to show the weakness of both McCarthy and the political position he is attempting to take.

What is going to have to happen -- what was always going to happen, no matter what the Republicans did or didn't vote for -- is that McCarthy is going to have to pass a budget bill with Democratic votes. Probably a lot of Democratic votes. Even if his own caucus had been united, McCarthy still would have had to cut some sort of deal with the Senate's Chuck Schumer, which would have reflected Democratic priorities as well as the few Republican priorities which weren't absolute deal-breakers (as most of them are). Then McCarthy will have to return to his House with the compromise deal in hand and hold a vote on it. Because it won't have all the GOP poison pills in it and because it will reflect the Senate's Democratic agenda, plenty of House Democrats will back it. Many House Republicans will vote against it, in frustration. But it will pass with a bipartisan vote, as the moderate Republicans join with the Democrats. The GOP hotheads may, at this point, try to depose McCarthy as speaker (for doing his job exactly the same way as every other speaker has had to do with divided government).

This process is going to have two stages. The first will be the continuing resolution and the second will almost certainly be a big omnibus budget bill that passes at some point in December (if history is any guide). So McCarthy's going to have to go through it all twice (assuming his speakership survives the first iteration). The only open question is whether there will be government shutdowns either at the start of October or right after whatever deadline is agreed to in the C.R. (in mid-December or perhaps after Christmas). Shutdowns or not, though, this is now the only path out of this mess.

As mentioned, the MAGA hotheads are going to be absolutely livid when any of this happens. Remember, they truly believe that somehow they've got such monstrously effective leverage that they can dictate terms to Schumer and Biden. This is not reality, of course. It is pure fantasy. But it is a fantasy that some of them actually believe, and they will not be shy about excoriating their fellow Republicans for not sticking to the plan.

McCarthy is well on his way to wasting this entire week in the House. He is still chasing his own fantasy that all 12 appropriations bills can somehow pass in the limited time remaining, and he is enabling and nurturing the hotheads' fantasy that somehow they are steering the entire budgetary ship. The partisan Republican C.R. which didn't happen this week (or another one, if McCarthy takes a second crack at passing one) is never going to become law, please remember. It is a mere bargaining chip, or at least it was supposed to be.

Currently, behind the scenes, some of the moderate Republicans are reaching out to centrist Democrats and having discussions about what the real C.R. will contain. The one that can actually pass the Senate and be signed by Biden, in other words. They are contemplating parliamentary maneuvers that might allow McCarthy to save some face, by officially forcing his hand and bringing a bill to the floor without his consent. But whether McCarthy saves face or whether he's actually got to schedule a compromise C.R. on his own, it is going to happen at some point (whether McCarthy likes it or not). Again, the only real question is whether it will happen before a government shutdown happens or during one.

Poor Kevin. You can almost see him sitting alone in his office muttering: "It wasn't supposed to be like this!" His grand scheme of returning Congress to functioning order lies in tatters. He was never strong enough to hold his caucus together, but then he's not the only recent Republican speaker to have had to face this reality. With his razor-thin majority, it was always highly improbable to expect otherwise. The hotheads' fantasy of how they truly wish things should happen (which is: they dictate terms to everyone else) was always going to crash head-on into the brick wall of the true dynamic of power in a divided government. We are a few weeks away from that happening, whether Kevin McCarthy likes it or not.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


8 Comments on “Poor Kevin”

  1. [1] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Republicans have made “Do everything we can to make the Democrat in the White House look like a failure…no matter the cost to our nation or our constituents!” the only play in their playbook since Obama was first elected. It’s why so many of them have to tell their constituents about all the great things that Congress got passed for them since they were elected while failing to mention that they had voted against them getting those great things.

    Republicans— Slimy? Probably. Predictable? Definitely!

  2. [2] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Good column, Chris. I’d missed some of this information and you filled in the blanks quite nicely.

    It’s safe to say that McCarthy is simply incompetent. Why he gave concessions to the nutjobs to win the Speakership, I’ll never know. He should have said after the very first failed vote, “Okay, y’all don’t want me? Run along now and try to elect someone else and when that fails I’ll be here when you’re ready to get serious.”

  3. [3] 
    Kick wrote:

    First it was the Tea Party, now it is the MAGA faction, but whatever they are called there have always been a group of hardcore GOP purists that have been impossible to appease.

    Today's far right-wingnut MAGAts refer to themselves as the "Freedom Caucus," which is ridiculous due to the fact they're the ones frequently holding the country hostage over something for which they don't (and never will) have the votes.

    It's also hysterical that the right-wingnut MAGAt cult hive-minded dysfunctional groupthink collective refers to itself as the "Freedom Caucus" when in reality they're a gang of boot lickers completely captive and beholden to Defendant Donald and in no way whatsoever are they "free."

  4. [4] 
    Kick wrote:


    Exactly this!

    Love you, Russ. :)

  5. [5] 
    Kick wrote:


    It’s safe to say that McCarthy is simply incompetent.

    I know, right!? Here in Texas, we have been known to judge intelligence by using boots. While Kevin has proven repeatedly his ability to lick a boot like it's an all-day sucker, he's also shown demonstrably that he couldn't pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel. Poor Kevin. :)

  6. [6] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:


    Love you too, my sweet friend. Hope all is well!


  7. [7] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    so would that make him "puss in boots?"

  8. [8] 
    nypoet22 wrote:
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