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What’s to stop the House speaker chaos from happening again to the next guy?

‘Narcissists,’ ‘anarchists’ and ‘structural problems’ aren’t going away, observers say

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, center, and other lawmakers are seen on the House floor during a vote in May. The turmoil Gaetz set off this month is a symptom of larger structural problems, some congressional observers say.
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, center, and other lawmakers are seen on the House floor during a vote in May. The turmoil Gaetz set off this month is a symptom of larger structural problems, some congressional observers say. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As House Republicans argued over who should replace ousted speaker Kevin McCarthy, longtime watchers of congressional machinations had a bigger question on their minds: How could anyone avoid following in his ignominious footsteps?

“Great question,” said former Rep. Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican.

“Even if it’s resolved quickly, the Republican Party is going to have the same structural problems that caused McCarthy to struggle as speaker,” said Matthew Green, a political scientist at Catholic University. “Some of the demands that these Republicans have are going to be extremely difficult for [the next speaker] to meet.”

“How could a Republican House expect to get everything it wants with a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president?” Green added. “How realistic would it be to just have another shutdown in the hopes that it works this time?”

McCarthy was only the latest Republican speaker to face a right-wing revolt. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, decided to resign rather than face an effort to boot him amid negotiations to pass the annual spending bills in 2015. That rebellion was led by the House Freedom Caucus, a group co-founded by one of the speaker candidates this time around, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

The next Republican to wield the gavel, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, only accepted it reluctantly. With his party also controlling the Senate and then the White House, Ryan tried to enact a wide range of long-held conservative legislative goals but mostly fell short, with the exception of the 2017 tax cuts. After three years of party infighting, Ryan announced his decision to retire shortly after working with Democrats and the Senate to pass an omnibus spending bill to avert a shutdown over the objections of the party’s rump.

In his bid for the speakership, McCarthy made concessions to individual members and various blocs within the GOP, including a change to the House rules that let any one member bring a no-confidence vote, known as a “motion to vacate” the office of the speaker. A group of 45 Republican lawmakers signed a letter last week blasting that change and urging the conference to rethink it.   

Even if they get their way, the electoral incentives and ideological divides that led to this chaotic moment for the GOP will remain as the latest deadline to fund the government inches ever nearer. That means the next speaker may soon have déjà vu: staring down another shutdown crisis that splits the party, eventually being forced to strike an appropriations deal with the Senate and Democrats, and then immediately facing a right-wing revolt.

Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, a supporter of would-be speaker Steve Scalise, R-La., and head of the Republican Main Street Caucus, noted how recalcitrant some of his Republican colleagues have been all year. “It’s been really, really hard for this Republican House to govern,” he said, speaking to reporters Wednesday. “We have incredibly tight margins and, frankly, some members who have a hard time getting to yes on almost anything, on almost every week.”

Or, as he put it during a CNN appearance last week, “If we don’t change the foundational problems within our conference, it’s just going to be the same stupid clown car with a different driver.”

No one felt that more than Scalise this week, after he secured the speaker nomination from his party behind closed doors, only to face more than a dozen Republicans promising to vote against him on the floor. The Scalise holdouts gave differing reasons. Nancy Mace of South Carolina pointed to a speech he gave in 2002 to a white supremacist group as a state lawmaker (Scalise later called it “a mistake I regret”), while Thomas Massie of Kentucky said he doesn’t like that Scalise “has not articulated a viable plan for avoiding an omnibus.” 

Individually negotiating with each holdout, akin to what McCarthy went through in January, could only make things worse, Green said.

“There’s no clear single coalition that’s opposed to Scalise,” he said. “It’s kind of a motley crew of Republicans with individual grievances.”

McCarthy’s inability to impose discipline on the rank and file set the tone, Green said. “What happened in January made it clear that there’s no real punishment for defecting on a speaker vote on the House floor. There’s no cost,” Green said. “In the old days it was apostasy to do that, but holding up a vote for multiple ballots might actually get you something [today].”

‘Narcissists’ and ‘anarchists’ 

Regardless of what strategy he takes, the next speaker will at some point face another spending showdown. With Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House, they will be unwilling to accept large cuts to popular programs or culture war amendments anathema to their voters, creating the potential for another standoff.

To avoid that kind of shutdown — which many Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have warned would be electorally disastrous for the GOP in 2024 — would require the House to strike some kind of compromise, like McCarthy did to keep the government open through Nov. 17, which precipitated his ouster.

Davis, the former representative who lost his primary last year when redistricting pitted him against another incumbent Republican, said the revolts against the last few speakers were excuses used by “sociopathic narcissists” like Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz to strike. “All of those instances where spending bills came to a head were all completely foreseen,” he said, speaking at a Bipartisan Policy Center webinar Wednesday. “We knew that we were going to get to that point of governing during that congressional session.”

“It goes deeper than that,” said Ed Perlmutter, a retired Democratic representative from Colorado, speaking at the same webinar. Perlmutter said Republican leaders have been contending with a fraction of the party uninterested in governing. “They’re more like anarchists,” Perlmutter said. “That’s going to be the problem that the Republicans are going to have for a while.”

Whether they are anarchists or narcissists, the Republicans who decided to end McCarthy’s speakership may be merely reflecting the will of the voters who elected them. While both parties have grown more polarized, the average Republican voter has shifted further right than the average Democrat has moved left. A Morning Consult poll conducted last week found that 41 percent of Republican voters wanted the next speaker to stick to party principles even if that meant a shutdown, while 43 percent would rather see the next speaker strike a deal to keep the government open.

A recent analysis by the group Fairvote, which advocates electoral reforms like ranked choice voting, highlighted just how unusual the McCarthy rebels are, even among Republicans. Six of the eight who voted to buck their party and oust the speaker made their way to Congress by way of crowded primaries for safe Republican seats, winning their primaries with less than a majority of the vote.

In the immediate aftermath of McCarthy’s ouster, Gaetz found himself one of the most hated men among Washington’s GOP firmament, but apparently more popular than ever with regular Republican voters back in Pensacola. This reflects McCarthy’s own low approval rating with the rank and file — recent polls by Civiqs showed only 43 percent of Republicans viewed him favorably, while 27 percent rated him unfavorably.

Other Republican leaders in Congress actually fare worse among GOP voters, according to an analysis by Michael Tesler, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine. Mitch McConnell’s net favorability (favorable minus unfavorable) was recently minus-49 percent. Paul Ryan left the speakership with a minus-24 net favorability. Democrats, meanwhile, largely like their leaders. 

It may be that personality, not politics, drove McCarthy out, said Green. “One of McCarthy’s problems was that some Republicans just didn’t like him,” he said. “That’s really hard to negotiate.”

As the party talks continued, some Republicans remained optimistic. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., said no matter what happened, he didn’t expect the next speaker to get booted again.

“I’d be very surprised because they’re both so well-liked within the party,” Grothman said on Wednesday of the front-runners at the time, Scalise and Jordan. “When you’re a leader, you make enemies. And since neither has been the leader, so far, they haven’t had a chance to make enemies.”

Justin Papp and Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

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