Against the wall, McCarthy does the right thing
By David Firestone
Only an extremely shallow man would repeatedly wait until the last possible moment to do the right thing, no matter how obvious that thing might be. But in today’s Washington, the Republican Party usually doesn’t do the right thing at all, so House Speaker Kevin McCarthy deserves some credit for putting his job on the line Saturday to end the threat of a government shutdown.
Not a huge amount of credit. The deal he put together Saturday (which he had opposed for weeks) only lasts for 45 days, after which Congress will still struggle to perform its most fundamental task of paying for a year’s worth of government operations. And there is no excuse for the damage this deal could do to Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression, by leaving out the military aid that the Biden administration was planning to send.
But if his gamble succeeds, McCarthy may finally do the country a service by proving that bipartisanship works, effectively shutting up the braying band of right-wing extremists who have been agents of chaos since the moment the current House took office in January. They opposed the deal to prevent a credit default during the debt-ceiling crisis in May, but McCarthy and a bipartisan coalition prevailed. He appeared to join them for a while in rejecting that deal during the shutdown crisis, but just hours before the government was set to close its doors Saturday, he put a stopgap measure on the House floor that drew the votes of most Republicans and all but one Democrat. The hard-liners were left in the cold.
The sin of working with Democrats has now led the loudest extremist, Matt Gaetz of Florida, to promise a vote this week to remove McCarthy as speaker. If McCarthy can survive that vote — and he will probably need the votes of a few Democrats to do so — the wrecking-ball caucus will have to slink into the shadows of defeat. No one would be more pleased with that outcome than the core of House Republicans, who are profoundly weary of being shouted down by the Matt Gaetzes of the world.
“The problem is, we are being dragged around by 20 people when 200 of us are in agreement,” Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, told Carl Hulse of The New York Times a few days ago. “As long as we let those 20 drag us around, we are going to get these kinds of results. At some point in time, you’ve got to say, ‘We’re done.’”
For a while, it didn’t look like McCarthy had the spine to say that. He betrayed the debt-ceiling deal he had personally negotiated with President Joe Biden, allowing House appropriators to begin setting two-year spending targets far below the levels he had agreed to. He backed a different stopgap measure that would have shredded the social safety net and revived Trump-era policies like building hundreds of miles of border wall and denying asylum rights to many desperate migrant families. But that measure failed on the floor Friday when the extremists voted it down, saying it didn’t go far enough in cutting spending and vowing never to support any kind of stopgap measure.
And so, having demonstrated to the country that his own caucus was incapable of keeping government open, McCarthy finally agreed with Simpson and said he was done. He put a bill on the floor that he knew would draw bipartisan support, one that included important disaster aid and did not slash safety net spending, and he dared his challengers to come after him. “If someone wants to make a motion against me, bring it,” he said Saturday after the bill passed with a vote of 335-91. “There has to be an adult in the room.”
Did he do it for pragmatic reasons, knowing that a shutdown would be blamed on Republicans and could hurt their chances of holding on to the House in 2024? That was the argument made to him by some of the most vulnerable House Republicans, including those in New York state. Or did he do it because in some deep place in his heart — a place most despised by the hard-liners — he actually didn’t want a shutdown that would stop the paychecks of hundreds of thousands of federal workers, including those in the military, and damage the economy at a vulnerable moment?
I’m going to be a bit cynical and bet on the former explanation. But the reason doesn’t matter as much as his willingness to buck the nihilist wing of the party, which has been taking dictation from Donald Trump to shut down the government in order to stop the two federal prosecutions he is facing. (A shutdown, however, would not have had any effect on those prosecutions, which are covered by a permanent allocation to the special counsel’s office.)
The question now is whether McCarthy’s actions will cost him his job. Will the hard-liners follow Gaetz and vote to remove him? If he loses five Republicans, there will be another unpleasant round of roll-call votes for a new speaker, just as there was in January, and the House will be unable to function until one is chosen. But the wrecking crew has no apparent candidate that will win the votes of the full caucus, and it’s not clear how long they can hold out.
Will a few Democrats step in to save him? McCarthy is profoundly untrustworthy, having repeatedly broken various promises to both parties. He is the man who refused to allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address the House last month, a morally repugnant act that reflects his party’s growing appeasement of Russia. One Democratic senator said that McCarthy wouldn’t even allow administration officials to meet with House members to explain how urgent the aid to Ukraine would be. (There will probably be a separate effort to restore that aid.)
McCarthy is also fully behind the House’s laughable effort to impeach Biden, and has supported expanding onerous work requirements for low-income people receiving federal benefits, as well as Trump’s cruel immigration policies.
Most Democrats are going to have a hard time casting a vote for such a speaker. But he did keep the government open, at least for a few more weeks, and he told Gaetz and his band where they could go. At a moment like this, that may be enough to let him keep his job.