At what price McCarthy?

The Republican extremists who blocked their own party’s choice for Speaker of the US House of Representatives have gotten away with it, and the new fetters placed on leaders will increase the prospect of prolonged government shutdowns and a historic default on the national debt. They will also jeopardize the future of the party.

CHICAGO–Over the past four days, Americans and others around the world have had their eyes glued to the spectacle of the US House of Representatives trying, and failing, 14 times to elect a new president. Now, by making even more concessions, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California has finally taken the gavel. McCarthy won, but at an alarming cost to the country and his own party.

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Some features of the conflict in the Republican Party that we saw on display this week are nothing new. Each party has its ideological factions. Others, however, represent a fundamental change. Unlike dissidents who have challenged congressional leadership in the past, this week’s holdouts belong to the party’s most extreme. By forcing concessions, they have made their personal ideological convictions the program of the Republican Party.

At stake in the past two months of Republican haggling was the authority of the Speaker of the House, the only congressional leadership officer specified in the Constitution. To the extent permitted by House rules, the Speaker sets the House’s agenda and mobilizes the majority party to action.

The score of Republicans who paralyzed House business attempted to substantially reduce the speaker’s power. They forced McCarthy to agree to a rule change that would once again allow a single member to call a vote of no confidence in his leadership. And now, by holding out longer, they’ve made McCarthy concede even more.

Internal party disputes over leadership powers are not new. The last deadlock over the choice of Speaker, in 1923, hinged on demands by Progressive Republicans for procedural concessions from party conservatives, notably Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts, the Speaker for the previous two terms. Similarly, a 1910 “revolt” against Joseph Cannon of Illinois, also led by progressive Republicans, loosened the speaker’s grip on policy and prerogatives.

However, the current alignment of forces is very different, because it is no longer the “moderates” who are demanding changes to the party leadership; they are extremists. Although most of the holdouts were recently elected, they are clearly the spiritual descendants of the Tea Party movement that stormed Congress in 2010.

Internal party disputes over the powers of the leadership are not new, they have been going on for more years than is accepted. Photo: Twitter.

For a dozen years, members of this group placed their “principles” above “expediency,” as they would say, and refused to support appropriation bills, debt limit increases, and other essential legislation. . Then they watched as Republican leaders, motivated by a sense of responsibility or fear of the consequences of failure, cut deals with Democrats in the House and Senate to ensure essential legislation was enacted.

The extremists then took revenge on the leaders after the fact. In 2014, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, next in line for the presidency, suffered a stunning defeat to a right-wing challenger from his own party. That was merely a prelude: The same extremist forces later purged Republican President John Boehner in 2015 and ousted President Paul Ryan in 2019.

Now, they have succeeded in denying leadership the option of working responsibly across the aisle, by reintroducing a mechanism that will subject the spokesperson to the constant threat of immediate ouster.

This is not a minor matter. It makes a big difference whether the challenges to party leadership come from the middle or from the extremes. Increasing the weight of the moderates generally benefits both the party and the country. For the country, it fosters the kind of bipartisan cooperation that is necessary to carry out the business of the legislative branch. And for the party, it creates a registry with broader appeal, leading to better results in future elections.

On the contrary, the concessions that today’s dissidents have wrought will hurt both the Republicans and the country. In effect, the extremists are demanding that their party leaders not adopt any legislation they personally disapprove of, no matter how important it is to the future of the party and how vital it is to the country. They don’t just want to cut off all cooperation with the Democrats (disturbing as that stance is); they also want to force their own Republican colleagues to submit to their will, the will of a few.

Since the Republicans regained control of the House in 1995, the party leadership has observed the Hastert Rule. Implemented by Chairman Dennis Hastert (an Illinois Republican who was later jailed for child molestation), it requires leadership to promote only those policies that have the support of a majority of the Republican conference.

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Now that the extremists have won, excessive new hurdles to leadership raise the possibility of prolonged government shutdowns and a historic default on the national debt. They also jeopardize the future of the party. Of the 200 Republicans who supported McCarthy in the initial votes for president, 18 represent districts that voted for Joe Biden in 2020. A couple dozen more could be at risk if the Republican leadership fails to meet its responsibilities to the American people.

GOP extremists love to dismiss their moderate colleagues as “Republicans in Name Only” (RINO). But the demands of the moderates were to the benefit of the party (and the country), both when they have challenged the leadership in the past and when they have recently supported it. So who are the real RINOs?

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