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Chaos in the House of Representatives as Republican Right Refuses to Support the Republican Establishment

Kevin McCarthy, the establishment Republican choice for Speaker of the House, lost six consecutive votes after a portion of the Republican right refused to vote for him. This kicked off the biggest crisis in choosing a speaker of the house since 1923.

Sybil Davis

January 4, 2023
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Kevin McCarthy stands in a suit coat looking forlorn.

Republican Kevin McCarthy lost a vote to be Speaker of the House. Then he lost again. And again. Then Donald Trump called for all Republican congresspeople to support McCarthy. Then McCarthy lost three more times.

This is the chaotic scene that unfolded on the floor of the House of Representatives on Tuesday and Wednesday. The wafer-thin Republican majority — their spoils from the aborted red wave — split itself apart at the first possible juncture. Despite (and perhaps because of) being the hand-picked leader of the Republican establishment, McCarthy was unable to win the support of the right of his party. So, for six consecutive votes, McCarthy was defeated due to spoiler candidates run by the Republican right wing. It doesn’t even seem like the GOP Right — primarily organized as “the Freedom Caucus” — is trying to win speakership with a candidate of their choice — three different candidates have been put forward by the right-wing over the past two days, none gaining more than 25 votes — but rather that they are trying to show that, with such a tight majority, their bloc is able to exert disproportionate political power. Not since 1923 has it taken this many votes to elect a Speaker of the House. 

In an attempt to win these forces to his side, McCarthy already has compromised on a vast majority of their demands — including making it easier to fire federal employees, easier to recall the Speaker of the House, and easier to defund federal agencies. Yet, the right-wing not only isn’t budging, but is expanding its reach. McCarthy started his quest to become Speaker on Tuesday with 203 votes, but by the fifth ballot, he’d fallen to 201 votes. This happened even after Trump personally called Congresspeople and asked publicly for the right to support McCarthy. Even Jim Jordan (one of the “protest” candidates) called for his colleagues to support McCarthy. Yet, neither of those interventions were able to win even a single vote for McCarthy. 

This level of disunity among the Republicans is striking and proves that the civil war within the Republican Party was not resolved in the past election. The right wing of the party — with such figureheads as Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert — is refusing to side with the establishment, even if Trump tells them to. Rather, they are using their bloc to threaten the narrow majority and demand a much greater role in politics. One interesting development is that notable right-winger Marjorie Taylor Greene is supporting McCarthy and explicitly attacking Boebert and Gaetz as “destructionists.”

At this point, even if McCarthy is able to win a victory, he will become a Speaker so disempowered that it is hard to see him leading or unifying his party. The right wing of the GOP is using this Speakership election to declare itself the true leader of the congressional Republican party. However, it is still an open question whether or not the fight to keep McCarthy out will succeed. There are a wide range of possibilities, from a battered McCarthy victory, to a new consensus candidate, to a small number of moderate Republicans putting their support behind the Democratic candidate for Speaker.

To turn to the other side of the aisle, the story of the Democrats is the polar opposite. While the Republicans eat themselves alive on television, the Democrats affirmed their new leader — Hakeem Jefferies — unanimously. Importantly, this means that every single member of the Squad, many of whom are DSA members and self-proclaimed socialists, voted for Jeffries, who once declared that “there will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism.” 

So, while the Republicans fight amongst themselves about whether or not their leaders are right-wing enough, the Democratic Left stands in lock-step behind a committed opponent of the progressives. The Democratic civil war of 2016 and 2020, in which it seemed like the “democratic socialist” wing of the party would be in constant struggle with the Pelosi wing, has fizzled out with the left wing completely bending the knee to the right. This isn’t a new development — the last Congress saw countless examples of the progressives selling out their base and promises to back the establishment agenda, culminating in multiple DSA members voting to break a strike.  But the Squad’s capitulation is worth highlighting as the Republican Right demonstrates what a disruptive force a small bloc can be. A small minority that defends capitalist exploitation and calls for austerity is able to have much more influence inside a capitalist party than a left-wing minority fighting for reforms that would limit capitalist exploitation.

While truly fighting for socialism would never be possible from within the bounds of a capitalist party, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party hasn’t even tried. They held the line for Pelosi and Biden and now are holding the line for Jeffries. They voted for military funding, aid to Israel, more money for the police, to break strikes, and for an explicitly anti-socialist Speaker of the House. As of this writing, the democratic socialists have bent the knee to Jeffries and voted for him six times and are prepared to do so for as many ballots as it takes. These are the candidates who we are asked to believe will fight for socialism. These are the politicians we are told are the pragmatic way to win change. These are the heroes of reformism.

As of this writing, the House had to adjourn after six ballots for Speaker didn’t change the outcome. Trump wasn’t able to change the outcome either. The polarization within the Republican Party is too great. They have fought themselves to a deadlock, which, unless something drastic changes, they don’t seem to be able to overcome. This is a representation of the civil war within the Republican Party but also of the current political moment. We are in a moment where there is greater political polarization, less trust in the establishment, and a real hunger for change — on both the Left and the Right. The Republican right wing has seized on this political situation to situate themselves as kingmakers — or, rather, kingbreakers — in Congress. Whomever becomes Speaker of the House, it is clear that stability isn’t in store for this coming Congress.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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