After nearly a week of bruised egos and a circus on the House floor, the lower chamber finally has a speaker: Kevin McCarthy.
But the drama isn’t over just because the leadership elections are finally concluded. Mr McCarthy now faces the prospect of presiding over a GOP majority that is as thin in numbers as it is chaotic in temperament. Just nine votes separate the two parties in a chamber that is set to end proxy (remote) voting after two years of relying on the system.
The stage is set for two years of pitched political battles in the lower chamber while Americans prepare to make their choice for 2024.
Here’s why the US House is suddenly becoming the most interesting part of an increasingly divided government:
The debt ceiling
Washington DC is already preparing for two major fights in the House this year, the first of which will occur this summer.
When the debt ceiling deadline looms, expect Kevin McCarthy to take his first real political gamble of 2023 and attempt to cut a deal with Democrats. Defaulting on the US debt would be disastrous for the US economy, as it would devalue the country’s credit rating and cause consumer prices to soar at a time when the country is already dealing with inflation concerns. While the move is politically popular for conservatives in hard-red districts, it would likely be a body blow to the reelection chances of their colleagues in purple and blue states and result in a debacle eclipsing 2022 for House Republicans in the next election cycle.
A number of conservatives have already laid out demands for voting “yes” on the debt ceiling hike, while others such as Congressman Tim Burchett say they won’t vote for it under any circumstances. A key question will be whether Democrats, led by new minority leader Hakeem Jeffries, help Republicans pass debt ceiling legislation or force the GOP to work it out between themselves, as they did by whipping votes against motions to adjourn during last week’s speaker votes.
The government shutdown
Just a few short months after the debt ceiling is set to be hit, the US government is set to run out of money to pay federal workers and conduct basic services.
Here’s where it gets tricky. This issue is nearly as fraught with political peril as the debt ceiling issue, with some exceptions. The shutdown of the government for days or even weeks would be a massive headache for Washington, but would not cause nearly the extent of the damage to the US economy as would defaulting on the US debt. And for that reason, Mr McCarthy may be inclined to honour agreements he made with so-called “Never Kevin” conservatives to secure their votes in the speaker’s election, which reports indicate include shutting down the government in order to exact painful concessions from Democrats.
Among those concessions could very well be a surge of funding for border security, which Republicans have made their top political issue.
The defence bill
The final fight of 2023 will likely centre around the NDAA, a yearly bill which reauthorises funding for America’s defence sector. In past years, it has sailed through with little political drama thanks to wide support in both parties for the armed forces. Many sailed through both chambers of Congress in years past with little to no opposition.
But the bill could end up being a political football given the likelihood that Republicans will attempt to attach unrelated legislation to the bill which makes it unpalatable for Democrats. If so, the ability to pass such legislation will likely come down to Mr McCarthy’s ability to hold his caucus together. Progressives also could align with right-leaning isolationists against efforts in the bill to expand or maintain America’s global military footprint.
Will Kevin McCarthy last two years?
The Republican congressman from California now holds the top position in the House, the one he has coveted for years. But at what cost?
A rules package set to be passed on Monday 9 January changes the protocol in the House back to remove the greatest protection that the speaker of the House previously enjoyed: A rule that required a majority of either party to be supportive of a motion to vacate the chair for it to be allowed on the floor.
Now, thanks to concessions to conservatives, Mr McCarthy can be ousted by just one member of either party calling a motion to vacate. It would still require a majority of votes in the House, but it’s safe to say that doing so would instantly win the votes of every Democrat who is physically present to vote. If the caucus whips its members as effectively as it did last week, that means just five GOP members would need to flip to oust him from the role.
Should the “Never Kevin” coalition grow dissatisfied with his rule, that rule could very well mean the end of Mr McCarthy’s speakership long before Democrats have the chance to retake the chamber in 2024.
Nine is a very small number
Presiding over a single-digit majority in the House with a caucus totaling 222 members is not going to be easy. There will be many opportunities for both moderates and conservatives to defect from whatever the “party line” ends up being on any given issue, meaning that the House Majority Whip will have a tough job as well.
But that’s not the only problem that could arise. This past weekend actually spelled out rather clearly the extent of the issue that Mr McCarthy really faces: Real life. As the speaker vote continued past Thursday and into Friday evening, it suddenly became obvious that it was not going to be easy to keep 435 members of Congress, each with their own individual lives and personal challenges to deal with, in the same room for that long.
One member sought to leave town to attend his mother’s funeral. Another had a baby, and was hoping to be with his newborn and wife. Yet another fell physically ill, and needed to leave the Capitol complex to see a doctor.
It’s easy to see how just a few of these situations developing over the next two years could add new layers of complication to the tenuous prospect of governing in the House. Lawmakers in either party could see their leverage surge or evaporate at a moment’s notice.