Column: Coming soon: ‘Impeachment theater’ and Kevin McCarthy’s bow to the MAGA caucus

A man gesturing and speaking at a news conference
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy holds a news conference at the Capitol in Washington as the House prepares to leave for its August recess.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
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The kudos for Kevin were short-lived.

Last spring House Speaker Kevin McCarthy rightly got props from folks across the political spectrum, myself included, for compromising with President Biden to raise the nation’s debt limit and thereby avert economic armageddon. But that meant, of course, that the uncompromising far-right flank of his Republican caucus, which has the power to hold McCarthy hostage to its demands, was apoplectic.

The troublemakers needn’t have feared.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

The proverbial ink on the debt deal was hardly dry before McCarthy started backtracking. Astoundingly, he assured the wacky House Freedom Caucus that spending levels in the dozen bills that fund the government would be lower than what he’d just agreed to in the debt limit deal with Biden and senators of both parties. This sort of double-dealing is what happens when a “leader” feels beholden to anti-government zealots to keep the job he coveted for so long.

McCarthy also signaled his openness to letting the culture warriors tack onto the spending bills their pet provisions against abortion rights, transgender kids and more — nonstarters in the Senate. Oh, and he promised to pursue Biden’s impeachment — allegations and evidence TBD. Yet when the House returns from its summer break next week, it has all of 11 working days to pass its funding bills and settle the bills’ differences with the Senate and the president before Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year.


Or else the government shuts down.

Even those of us who don’t usually agree with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell have to acknowledge that he best described what Congress faces this month, thanks yet again to House Republicans. “Honestly, it’s a pretty big mess,” he said back home in Kentucky last week.

The debt-ceiling fight in the GOP House ended in rare bipartisanship, with wins and losses on both sides. But the president won measurably more.

June 1, 2023

McConnell made clear he was not pleased that McCarthy had essentially reneged on the deal they’d all agreed to just three months earlier, a deal that should have eased the budget-writing and removed any shutdown risk.

And yet, McConnell, Biden and the Senate majority leader, New York’s Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, have no choice but to cut another deal with McCarthy, which likely will take until December, when Congress’ deadline-busting drama finally runs up against lawmakers’ holiday plans.

To buy that time, McCarthy has floated the idea with Schumer that Congress pass a resolution extending government funding for a few months. Further complicating the “pretty big mess” are separate contentious proposals for emergency funding for Ukraine, the border crisis and states hit by natural disasters, along with must-pass farm and air-transportation bills.

High prices and Trump’s revisionism are making it hard for President Biden to change the public’s mind about the economy.

Sept. 4, 2023

This is all pressing business, but it’s not what is front and center for House Republicans. That would be an attempt to impeach Biden — “impeachment theater,” as one congressman calls it. The show will go on despite the fact that there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden after months of investigation, no House majority to actually approve articles of impeachment and no chance that the Senate would convict even if it did receive a resolution.

But here’s what there is: a threat to McCarthy’s beloved job. As Florida Man Rep. Matt Gaetz this week told a conservative radio host, “If Kevin McCarthy stands in our way, he may not have the job long.” To which the host replied, “Matt, I’m so glad to hear you say that.”


So McCarthy has adapted the Roman emperors’ palliative for the potentially mutinous mob: Give the people bread and circuses. And McCarthy is using the impeachment circus to entice rebellious Republicans to support funding the government as well.

“If we shut down, all of government shuts down — investigations and everything else,” McCarthy said on Fox News last week.

The censure of Rep. Adam B. Schiff was only one of the Republicans’ boneheaded attempts to weaponize the government against Democrats.

June 24, 2023

Amid the coming spending debates, expect to hear a lot of Republican condemnations of Democrats’ profligacy. And when you do, keep in mind Nikki Haley’s slapback during the recent Republican presidential debate at her rivals who blamed Democrats for the nation’s debt: “The truth is that Biden didn’t do this to us. Our Republicans did this to us, too.”

Or heed Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who said back home in a Salt Lake City TV interview last week, “When President Trump was president, you didn’t hear anything from we Republicans about how we were spending too much and trillion-dollar deficits. Quiet as little lambs! Now President Biden is president — Oh, we’re going to shut down government if we don’t rein in spending.”

He added: “A little less hypocrisy would be a good thing.” Better yet: a lot less.

The next few weeks will be “an interesting test” for McCarthy and the House Republican majority, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the House Democratic minority leader, told The Times in a meeting Tuesday. He seems to expect a short shutdown, thanks to the uncompromising demands of what he and other Democrats have taken to calling the “extreme MAGA Republicans.”

Given all the examples of the last three decades of Republicans paying a political price for shuttering the government — and thereby disrupting public services, benefits, payrolls, projects and so much more — you’d think no one would be so stupid as to openly provoke a shutdown. Remember, however, that an unusually large number of House Republicans, 52%, have come to Congress only in the last four years; they’re inexperienced. And they are generally more radical than their predecessors.


That is who and what McCarthy is dealing with. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for him. Except that he’s become one of them.

There are no kudos for that.