Popcorn at 5pm – Will the House of Representatives elect a Speaker today, and at what cost?

If you thought that 2023 might be a less wild political year, you would have been proved wrong just 3 days in – at least on the other side of the Atlantic.

The first act of any new session of Congress is for the House of Representatives to elect a new Speaker. Usually this is straightforward, with the leader of the party which holds the majority getting the job. Not this time. For the first time in a century, Republican Kevin McCarthy failed to achieve the required 218 votes. Which is a bit of a worry for him, seeing as he had already moved his stuff into the Speaker’s Office.

He fell foul of the GOP’s Freedom Caucus, 20 of the wilder, more excitable Trump idolising, conspiracy theorist Representatives. They nominated Jim Jordan, someone who doesn’t even want the job, to try to force McCarthy out. After three votes, the session adjourned to allow the party time to sort itself out.

All of this has been entirely predictable since the midterm elections. It has always seemed unlikely that he would be able to get the Freedom Caucus on side, even though he made so many concessions to them, including promising to make it easier for them to get rid of him once he was in the role.

So why do they dislike him? Former Obama staffer Dan Pfeiffer sums it up on his Message Box blog:

Kevin McCarthy could never lead the Republican Caucus, because he doesn’t really understand the forces driving the Republican Party in the Trump era.

McCarthy sidled up to Trump because he thought it would help him become Speaker. He allowed Trump to refer to him publicly with the diminutive “My Kevin” and even went so far as to curate Trump’s favorite Starburst flavors. After Trump sent his minions to possibly murder him, McCarthy briefly distanced himself from Trump. When McCarthy realized he would need Trump’s voters and fundraising base to win the majority, he flew to Mar-a-Lago to beg for the former President’s forgiveness.

McCarthy mistakenly thought he could appease the MAGA base while keeping one foot in the Washington establishment that nurtured his career.

Former Ford, Clinton and Obama cabinet member and adviser Robert Reich looks at the schisms in the Republican Party which have developed over decades in today’s Guardian. He charts the metamorphosis of the GOP from a small state, low tax party to the hate filled culture war machine it has become today.

What we are seeing played out today in the contest for the speakership of the House involves all of these phases – what remains of the small-government establishment, the cultural warriors and the hate-filled authoritarians – engaged in hopeless, hapless combat with each other.

I remember being worried when George H W Bush was challenged in the 1992 primaries by Pat Buchanan. The conservative evangelical was never going to win but he succeeded in getting the party to adopt a much more socially conservative agenda for the general election than Bush actually believed in. That was just one of the factors that led to Bill Clinton’s cruise to victory. The party’s descent into the Make-America-Great-Again hellscape, stitching up the Supreme Court to roll back hard won freedoms and potentially threaten democracy itself, was an important factor in its poorer than expected performance in the midterms thirty years on.

So what happens next? Well, the House reconvenes at 5pm and we’ll see if the Republicans have managed to cobble together some semblance of unity around either McCarthy or, perhaps, his deputy Steve Scalise. The alternative is several more rounds of fruitless voting. The Democrats need to stay in the Chamber and continue consuming the popcorn. The roll call votes may be tiresome and time consuming but they should not let McCarthy off the hook by leaving and thus reducing the threshold required for a majority of those present and voting.

What we don’t want is a repeat of the 133 ballots in the 1856 Congress That process too two months. While the world might quite like to watch the Republicans make twits of themselves for weeks on end, the people who staff House Committees are only guaranteed to get paid till next Friday unless committees are formed. And for that you need the Speaker election to be over.

This undignified spectacle will not end well for the Republicans. However they get themselves out of it, the eventual winner has a near impossible task to keep the caucus together and coherent. It’s a job nobody in their right mind should want. Party discipline is lax at the best of times in the US, but this caucus would be completely ungovernable.

That matters. The House will have to make key decisions on budgets and increasing the debt ceiling. The MAGA lot have form for shutting down the Government and getting the country to the brink of defaulting on its loan payments. The global economic shockwaves of such a default would add to our current woes. The chaos of the Speaker election could foreshadow a rough ride over the next two years.

Today’s fun starts at 5pm. You can watch from the UK in several ways, among them CNN if you can get it with Sky in the UK, or on the ABC News You Tube channel.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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One Comment

  • Ian Patterson 4th Jan '23 - 10:22pm

    Have watched six ballots over two days. House now adjourned till 8.00 p.m. EST for more Republican arm twisting. The most dignified part of the proceedings were the Lady House Clerks who either banged the gavel for attention or who read 434 names out six times. They deserve several medals for endurance!

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