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Kevin McCarthy Has (Once Again) Lost Control

With the radical right calling the shots, the government is likely to shut down. McCarthy seems powerless to do anything.

Kevin McCarthy buries his face in his fist in frustration last January.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
A frustrated Kevin McCarthy got a taste of what the year would be like back in January.

The best way of understanding House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s decision to back a baseless, ridiculous impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden is as a desperation play. McCarthy’s reign has been defined almost totally by one dynamic: He is completely in thrall to a gaggle of right-wing bomb-throwers who know they can end his time leading the House of Representatives whenever they want. McCarthy has to keep them happy: To get anything, he has to do what they want, even if it’s stupid and self-defeating. Hence the impeachment inquiry.

That ploy was part of a larger effort to get his caucus in line at a critical juncture. The government will shut down on September 30 if Congress doesn’t pass a series of appropriations bills, which Biden then signs. This should have been (relatively) easy. The government funding deal struck by McCarthy and Biden in the spring was designed to make it easy. It hasn’t been. Instead, McCarthy is—again—presiding over a circus: House Republican fecklessness and incompetence is reaching absurd levels.

They are such a mess they can’t even fund the military—arguably the easiest thing House Republicans have to do when they’re in the majority. And yet, last Thursday, McCarthy was forced to pull an $826 billion defense spending bill, knowing that he didn’t have the votes to pass it. Members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus refused to back it, even though the vast majority of Republicans wanted to move it forward. The failure to pass a defense spending bill is the clearest example in the ongoing appropriations fight of how little power McCarthy has—and how likely a government shutdown is becoming.

“Nobody’s objecting to what’s in the bill,” House Rules Committee Chair Tom Cole told Politico last week in a revealing quote. “Everybody’s trying to leverage the bill for something now.” That is the dynamic, and it is one that will almost certainly shut down the government.

Freedom Caucus members are trying to leverage support for defense spending for even steeper cuts to other programs. “We all concede defense is going to continue to rise. But the exchange for that has to be we have to make cuts in other areas of the bureaucracy,” said Representative Dan Bishop, a Freedom Caucus member who voted against beginning debate last week. In other words, the right wing is willing to support one of its own priorities (defense spending) only if it can get its other priorities as well (spending cuts elsewhere). Bishop added: “Once the entire package is ready and I can see it and I can see that everybody’s prepared to move it, then I’m prepared to move individual bills.” This despite the fact that McCarthy and Biden already agreed to spending levels far below—$100 billion below, in fact—what is required via the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which the president signed into law in June.

As Punchbowl News reported on Friday, there is a plan, sort of. Freedom Caucus members are attempting to negotiate a compromise with what passes for moderate GOP House members: a deal that would “pair a short-term extension of government funding with billions of dollars in disaster relief and H.R. 2, the Secure the Border Act,” allowing a defense bill to pass the House. There are two problems, however. One is that the extension is very short-term: only 30 days. And the other, which is related, is that there is no chance that the Senate, which Democrats narrowly hold, would pass such a bill or that Biden would sign it.

Tension boiled over at a meeting of House Republicans on Thursday. “If you want to file the motion, file the fucking motion,” McCarthy said, referring to a “motion to vacate,” which would trigger a new vote for speaker. Right-wingers have been threatening to use such a tactic to remove him more or less since he took the gavel—even though he has acquiesced to them at nearly every turn. (One notable exception was the deal McCarthy struck with Biden.) This outburst may have been defiant, but it was one that only underscores McCarthy’s weakness: two weeks before the government is set to shut down, and he is in full desperation mode.

All of this only underscores the larger truth: that House Republicans simply aren’t interested in governing. McCarthy is powerless. The GOP’s far-right flank holds nearly all the power, and they’re using it to launch pointless investigations and make demands for draconian cuts. With less than two weeks to go until the government shuts down, it’s hard to see anything changing.