Democracy is messy. Everybody gets to have their say, it takes longer than it should, nobody gets everything they want, and in the end, the majority rules, a simple principle that’s getting a stress test on Capitol Hill.
After keeping the government funded with more votes from Democrats than Republicans, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy faces a recall vote from Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, an attention-seeking MAGA Republican whose vendetta can only be averted if GOP radicals have a change of heart (unlikely) or more likely, maybe even inevitably, Democrats step in to keep McCarthy in power.
Gaetz filed papers late Monday for a “motion to vacate,” putting McCarthy on notice that he’s coming for him. Not once, but every day until there are enough votes to oust McCarthy and install an alternative. With an eerie resemblance to the Joker in the Batman movies, Gaetz gleefully recalls the 15 votes it took for McCarthy to secure the gavel with his sliver-thin margin.
If this clown show gets a sequel, nobody will be laughing.
Gaetz’s threat could be hollow in a Republican conference where there is no consensus alternative, and the #2 Republican, Majority Leader Steve Scalise, is being treated for cancer and is not well enough to be in contention.
Gaetz doesn’t care, and says he’s “relentless.” Watching him hold court on Capitol Hill, reporters clamor for his latest take on the chaos he has created. Has he talked to former President Trump? Yes, he says with a self-satisfied smile. He’s keeping what they talked about to himself, but we can guess. Trump serves as a model—outrageous, never backing down, even if it damages his own party.
Still, there is some room for hope. “I think there is a pony somewhere,” Jim Kessler, with the center-left think tank Third Way, told The Daily Beast when we spoke Monday afternoon. He’d obviously gotten wind of a potential bipartisan path out of the current mess.
“I can’t tell you what Congress looks like a year from now, but I think McCarthy remains speaker until the end of the year at least. He’ll need Democratic help, and I think he’ll get it.”
One of the least-liked MAGA showboats, Gaetz overplayed his hand, leaving McCarthy no alternative but to seek help from the Dems. It’s been done before to get critical bills across the finish line, but never to prop up a speaker from the opposite party.
Under Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, Dems were prepared to save then-Speaker John Boehner when the far-right crazies were ready to pull the plug on his leadership. Boehner chose to skip out the door singing “Zippity Doo-Dah” and resign as speaker, paving the way for Paul Ryan, who didn’t last long in the job, exiting while Trump was in the White House.
Saving McCarthy is a whole other deal. He can’t be trusted to keep his word, and he just launched an impeachment inquiry against Biden. But on Tuesday morning with the Democrats unified under the leadership of Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, a potential deal is possible.
“The Democrats will get some meaningful concessions—to be determined—that make life in the minority more pleasant and powerful,” Kessler predicts. Maybe McCarthy can back off impeaching Biden, an inquiry that’s so baseless that it’s sinking on its own. Or there’s talk of power-sharing, boosting Democratic representation on some key committees.
“There is not a Speaker alternative on the Republican side who looks appreciably better than McCarthy,” says Kessler. “MAGA Republicans despise him, traditional Republicans are willing to give him a pass, and there are enough Democrats to help him survive.”
With the help of Democrats, McCarthy gets a reprieve. He puts off the day he gets fired. But the longer he is kept in power by Democratic votes, the more his Republican conference drifts away and eventually abandons him.
Asked if she would vote to keep McCarthy in power, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said “absolutely not,” adding that he’s a weak speaker who doesn’t keep his word, and she didn’t come to Washington to vote for a Republican speaker.
That’s fine. McCarthy only needs as many Republican votes as he loses. A small minority in the GOP conference opposes him. A former Senate Democratic aide, who did not want to be identified speaking about these machinations, said he could imagine the Dems summoning up a dozen votes—“Hakeem himself (the Democratic leader), people in safe seats, and people who are responsible politicians.”
As for AOC, this source said she would not be willing to vote for McCarthy but wouldn’t see it as a betrayal—not if Dems get something in return for keeping the government open and stabilizing a volatile situation that can only lead to more brinkmanship.
Most voters look at the bickering and name-calling as a Washington problem. It hurts all the players in what Gaetz and his allies call “The Uniparty,” the latest buzzword to tarnish the denizens of the so-called Deep State. The antics from Gaetz and others should assure Dems win back the House, but that’s more than a year away.
In the meantime, anything that tarnishes members of Congress will be useful to Trump, who can declare it as evidence that government doesn’t work.
Former Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD), who is flirting with the No Labels ticket, pointed the blame last week at President Biden, asking how he can sit on the sidelines.
But when the dispute is among and between Republicans, how does Biden fix that?
This could be a brave new world on Capitol Hill, or it could be more of the same. It’s up to McCarthy to grab the life raft, and to Democrats to make the most of the leverage they have over the embattled Speaker to demand he keep his promise to hold an up or down vote on aid to Ukraine, and keep the government open and functioning.