Can’t House Republicans do anything the easy way?
Opposition from a faction of uncompromising conservatives led House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the prohibitive favorite to replace John A. Boehner as speaker, to withdraw abruptly from the race Thursday. Some 40 members of the conservative Freedom Caucus had threatened to withhold their votes from the affable McCarthy when the full House elects a leader later this month, prompting him to step aside and let a yet-to-be-identified “fresh face” take the helm.
Yet it’s not at all clear what a fresh face could do for the fractious House Republican caucus that McCarthy couldn’t. The Freedom Caucus and other tea party-affiliated members are frustrated, as are their constituents, that despite Republican majorities in the House and Senate, they haven’t been able to dismantle Obamacare, weaken environmental and banking regulations or defund Planned Parenthood. This group wants more opportunities to vote on its top priorities, and it wants Republicans to take a tougher line in negotiations with Democrats in the Senate and with the White House. That includes demanding more from Democrats in exchange for raising the debt ceiling and funding the federal government in 2016.
But not only are they utterly wrong on the substance, their tactics are pointless, as most Republicans have learned from experience. The immutable reality is that President Obama can and will use his veto power to guard his top priorities, and Republicans simply don’t have the numbers in Congress to override him. You’d think that the multiple episodes of brinkmanship that we’ve endured since early 2011 would have gotten that lesson across. At the very least, you’d think Republicans would want to avoid damaging the economy again, as they did in 2011 when they threatened not to raise the debt ceiling, and in 2013 when they temporarily shut down much of the federal government.
In fact, one of McCarthy’s Republican supporters was so exasperated with the Freedom Caucus on Thursday, he floated the possibility of forming a bipartisan coalition with Democrats to pick a speaker over the dissidents’ objections. That’s a pretty good indication of just how badly things have gone awry in the House GOP caucus.
We may never know whether McCarthy would have been a capable speaker. He’s certainly not the best defender of his caucus’ work, as he showed when he acknowledged to Fox News that the House’s special investigation into the attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, was a successful effort to pull down Hillary Rodham Clinton’s poll numbers. Considering the fratricide in the Republican ranks, though, it’s an open question whether anyone can lead that group.