Opinion: Chaos in the House

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Kevin McCarthy (HorizonUI / Shutterstock.com)

If you missed the Friday Night Debacle on the floor of the U.S. House, the one in which Kevin McCarthy was finally elected speaker on Round 15 after 14 humiliating rounds of defeat, don’t worry.

Even though it had been 160 years since it took as many votes to elect a speaker, the night was hardly a one-off.

It was merely the pilot for a horror show that already has a two-season contract to alternately frighten and amuse the American public while, as a bonus, doing as much damage as possible to the American version of democracy.

Welcome to 2023, the year in which the most recent Jan. 6 Capitol proceedings evoked memories of the original Jan. 6 insurrection, which came just two years before. The main difference between the two dates, other than the lack of bloodshed, may be that Donald Trump seemed to want to stop the chaos this time.

Or as Lauren Boebert tweeted Saturday morning following her Friday night star turn as Eris — the Greek goddess of chaos, strife and discord — “If y’all thought that was good, just wait till we take the fight to Joe Biden and the radical left!”

They didn’t cave until McCarthy had promised them everything they could think to ask for.

Kevin McCarthy seems to be the winner here, with Boebert, Matt Gaetz and their Freedom Caucus, election-denying pals — who did cave in the end — as the losers. But that’s an illusion.

They didn’t cave until McCarthy had promised them everything they could think to ask for. And now, Boebert — among the leaders of the House dissidents and, I fear, an actual player in what promises to be two years of constant brinkmanship — apparently thinks it was all in, well, fun, starting with the humiliation of the new speaker, who, she assured us for days, would never get the votes to win. 

When House Republicans met Friday afternoon, there were 20 rebels voting against McCarthy. After much behind-closed-doors bartering, the session ended with only six rebels, including Boebert.

So, the House went into recess until 10 p.m. EST, by which time it appeared a final deal had been cut. But someone — possibly Gaetz, possibly Boebert, possibly both — apparently reneged on the deal. And when the 14th vote ended with Gaetz voting “present” — just as Boebert already had done — a once-confident, ever-grinning McCarthy, sure of victory, was now an embattled McCarthy with no victory and no grin at all.

No one knows for sure yet how much McCarthy had to give away to satisfy his years-long ambition of being speaker — only that it was a lot.

For instance, the dissidents got the right for any one representative at any time to invoke a “motion to vacate,” meaning an instant vote on whether McCarthy remains as speaker. Meaning, say, if McCarthy were to fold on a vote for the new rules package, which was scheduled for Monday, he could presumably lose the speaker’s position by midafternoon.

That’s how weak McCarthy looks to be. As we saw in the votes for speaker, McCarthy’s margin is so slim that he can afford to lose only four Republican votes to get anything passed. You see what kind of power that gives someone like Boebert. You can see how scary that could be.

And it’s not just me and/or you worried about it. Let’s face it, 49.92 percent of Boebert’s GOP-heavy 3rd Congressional District voted against her. After the vote, you may recall that Boebert promised to show more “discipline” and “focus” and to “take the temperature down in D.C.”

Instead, she has turned it up to 111. And that’s where we can expect the fever to stay.

If you watched her classic throwdown with, of all people, Sean Hannity, you didn’t see discipline and you didn’t see focus. When she actually called out Trump — whom she so strongly supports — advising him it was time to tell McCarthy to give it up, you saw Boebert in full Boebert form. What I kept seeing, besides an insistence that McCarthy had to go, was an audition for a TV gig, maybe after the 2024 election season.

Let’s watch how the session plays out. Maybe the most worrisome McCarthy promise concerns raising the debt ceiling. Without raising it, Congress can’t pay its bills, and the country would go into default and the economy into free fall. But McCarthy has also apparently promised to cut spending commensurate with the rise in the debt limit, which might well include cuts to Social Security and/or Medicare.

But House Democrats would never agree to that. The Senate, narrowly controlled by Democrats, would never agree to that. Joe Biden would never agree to that.

There were other promises, like a futile vote on a balanced budget amendment, a futile vote on Congressional term limits, votes and more votes on border security. We can only wait for the vote that ends with the inevitable government shutdown.

McCarthy apparently got Greene to vote for him by promising a seat on the Oversight Committee, which might as well be called the investigate-everyone-in-the-Biden-administration committee. Did you see Greene — who, we know, had lost all committee assignments for voicing a variety of conspiracy theories, including the one about Jewish space lasers — and her cheek-to-cheek selfie with McCarthy?

He apparently got Gaetz, in the end, by promising him an Armed Services subcommittee chairmanship. That may help explain the explosion by Congressman Mike Rogers, who will likely chair the full committee.

And there will be, it has been reported, a committee to probe what some Republicans call Biden’s “weaponization” of the federal government — a committee with a budget reportedly equal to that of the January 6 Select Committee.

And on and on it will go, with one perilous vote after another.

In the end, when McCarthy finally did win the speakership, it was only because the six holdouts all voted “present,” which allowed him the slimmest of possible majorities. Let’s just say it was not exactly a vote of confidence.

If it’s bad for McCarthy — and it almost certainly will be — there’s no need to feel sorry for him. He’s the, uh, leader, you’ll remember, who briefly blamed Trump for the insurrection, saying he would urge Trump to resign, and then, just days later, went to Mar-a-Lago to kiss his ring and beg forgiveness. In yet another misjudgment, McCarthy must have thought toadying up to Trump — as he had so many times before — would win over Trump’s closest allies in the House.

I don’t know how much more McCarthy can be humiliated. But here’s a guess: If he’s left depending on help from Boebert and Gaetz and the gang of crazies, it may not be long before the final countdown.

Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.

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