By Carl Hulse
The Republican-led House of Representatives concluded a year of paralysis and dysfunction last week with the latest in a string of failures to act on a pressing crisis, leaving undone a sweeping emergency spending measure to send another infusion of money to Ukraine for its war against Russia.
It was a startling outcome but also a fitting finale for one of the most tumultuous and unproductive legislative years in recent memory, characterized by Republican infighting and a tiny majority that left House GOP leaders toiling to do even the bare minimum of governing.
The inability to reach any agreement with the Senate to bolster a key U.S. ally that is facing off against President Vladimir Putin of Russia — even as clear majorities in the House and Senate strongly support doing so — only underscored the disarray.
Never mind that the House left town without making a dent in a pile of unfinished work on spending legislation to keep the government funded and was planning to return after New Year’s, with only eight working days to avoid a partial shutdown if they fail to complete it.
The first House session of the 118th Congress will be remembered mainly for the unprecedented 15 roll call votes it took in January to elect a speaker who was then unceremoniously dumped 10 months later by a Republican mutiny. That left the House leaderless and unable to work for weeks.
“This fall has been a very actively stupid political environment by a mistaken, misled few,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who filled in as speaker to oversee the election of Mike Johnson, R-La.
Like more than three dozen of his House colleagues to date, McHenry, a 10-term veteran, registered his opinion on the state of the chamber by announcing this month that he would not seek reelection next year. On Thursday alone, two more retirees announced their plans to depart as Republicans and Democrats gave the House failing grades for 2023 and headed home for the holidays.
“It was historical and hysterical,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, who helped block the election of Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, as speaker. “In a word, I would say, ‘underwhelming.’”
The House did manage to narrowly avoid complete disasters of its own making. Congress barely headed off a calamitous federal default that hard-right Republicans were provoking by refusing to increase the debt limit without deep spending cuts. It also moved, with no time to spare, to avoid a government shutdown, again steering around the objections of the far-right as its members continued to refuse to budge without slashing spending and imposing conservative social policies. Their positions proved impossible to sustain with Democrats in control of the White House and the Senate.
In the end, then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy embraced legislation to avert both economic crises and was forced to rely on Democrats to get debt limit suspension and stopgap spending bills to President Joe Biden’s desk. His bow to reality prompted a handful of Republican adversaries, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, to force a vote to vacate the speakership, dethroning McCarthy and setting the House on a spiraling search for his successor.
The House did end the year with bipartisan approval of a sweeping Pentagon policy measure. But again, it could be delivered in the Republican-led House only with significant Democratic support. Far-right Republicans balked, unhappy that provisions aimed at ending what they viewed as “woke” military policies on abortion, transgender care and racial diversity were stripped out, and some members of both parties objected to an extension of warrantless surveillance authority.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic leader, took the opportunity to remind Republicans that the little they did get done should be credited to Democrats.
“Anything productive that has happened in this Congress — which is not much, because of the extreme MAGA Republicans — has occurred because House Democrats have led the way,” he said.
The hard-right element of House Republicans started the year on a high note, having extracted significant concessions from McCarthy in return for their support for his speakership bid. They saw themselves in the driver’s seat on spending and other policy issues. They flexed their muscles in nontraditional ways, including opposing the procedural motions required to bring bills to the floor, which have historically been strict party-line votes. That prevented their leaders from moving ahead on measures they opposed. Their party’s narrow margin of control empowered them.
McCarthy did frequently bend in their direction, but the path typically led to a dead end, as the more extreme policies ran into opposition from both mainstream Republican conservatives and congressional Democrats.
On spending, for instance, McCarthy bowed to the far-right and agreed to set levels below the debt limit agreement he reached with Biden, infuriating Democrats and frustrating Republicans. The conservative stance made it difficult to advance the legislation, and the appropriations process ended up in knots despite a Republican pledge to consider and pass 12 individual spending bills.
Given the stalemate, McCarthy plowed ahead and kept the government open at the end of September with Democratic votes. Johnson, quickly finding himself in the same situation, also relied on Democrats in November to keep government agencies funded into January, when the issue of a shutdown will again rear its head.
Rising Republican opposition to Ukraine funding stalled the Biden administration’s request for about $50 billion in additional security aid as House Republicans joined their Senate counterparts in demanding stringent border policies in exchange for backing it. That led to an impasse that could not be resolved before the House departed for the holidays.
Rather than give up on what they see as a critical foreign policy priority, Senate leaders decided to keep the chamber in session next week in hopes of striking a deal on border policy changes, even though success seemed like a long shot. Even if the Senate could come to terms on immigration changes, it was very uncertain whether they would be sufficient to prevail in the House.
There was no guarantee that 2024 would be any better — and it could potentially be worse, given what will be a pitched battle for House control. McCarthy and Johnson have both sought to mollify House conservatives with a focus on impeaching Biden and challenging the administration on other fronts, but continued internal strife seems likely to continue, particularly given Johnson’s inexperience.