Friday night’s extraordinary House fight doesn’t bode well for the two years to come

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This is history unfolding before our eyes. The CSPAN cameras, unencumbered by rules because the House hasn’t been able to adopt rules, have roamed the floor of Congress, catching amazing scenes of politics in action.

On Friday night, we saw Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) in a last ditch effort to persuade Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to vote for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as Speaker of the House and finally end this farce. He failed. Gaetz voted “present” and McCarthy, on the 14th ballot, fell short again.

Then, something even more extraordinary:

McCarthy marched up the aisle and confronted Gaetz, who was sitting next to a smirking Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), another member of the “Never Kevin” coalition. Fingers were pointed. It was hard to read lips, but the message from McCarthy seemed to be: “We had a deal.” Gaetz was changing the deal. A shout in the back, a little bit of jostling. Was this going to end up in a fistfight?

Rep.-elect Ricchard Hudson pulls back Rep.-elect Mike Rogers during a tense conversation between republicans.
Rep.-elect Richard Hudson pulls back Rep.-elect Mike Rogers during a tense conversation between republicans.
AP

It was an incredible scene. It was also childish, idiotic, petulant — pick your adjective. For what possible reason did this egomaniac decide to torpedo a late-night vote after he called McCarthy “Speaker-elect” earlier in the evening?  

Especially because Gaetz shortly after reportedly agreed to a “deal” and the vote went to Round 15 as the clock struck midnight.

Now Kevin McCarthy, after this epic disaster, has finally become speaker. Yay, we guess.

Unfortunately, the divisions displayed this week make it look pretty unlikely the tiny Republican majority will be able to pull off most of the goals that the holdouts and the regulars agree on. Especially since we know McCarthy already made concessions that made his speakership weaker, and the position of the saboteurs stronger. What exactly did Matt Gaetz get for his theatrics? We’ll find out soon.

Yes, Republicans can finally conduct oversight hearings and investigations. But if they’re going to restore sanity to the appropriations process and avoid yet another “omnibus” blowout, they’ll need to agree on an actual budget and then on a dozen-plus concrete spending bills.

And then work out compromises with the (narrowly) Democratic Senate and the Biden White House.

It’s not remotely clear that 218 (of just 222) House Republicans can agree on any given spending bill: The hard-liners want major cuts, immediately; at least a few moderates won’t go along.

US Rep.-elect Mike Rogers (R-AL) is restrained after getting into an argument with Gaetz.
Rep.-elect Mike Rogers is restrained after getting into an argument with Gaetz.
Getty Images

Maybe McCarthy and his leadership team can scrape up a few Democratic votes for a budget that keeps spending growth nearly flat, though the new rules guarantee that’ll be a huge slog rife with challenges that force votes on ousting the speaker.

Some see the need to raise the federal debt ceiling as a prime opportunity to force some fiscal discipline. Maybe so, but that’ll still require GOP unity on some less-than-ideal proposal — because if the standoff goes on too long, “soft” Republicans will break and force some deal that protects their interests: It’s not just this week’s holdouts who can milk their leverage.

And the GOP’s best chance, when push comes to omnibus shove, may be simply to keep the government funded with continuing resolutions that basically retain current spending levels — but even that will require more unity than we’ve seen so far.

The last two Republican speakers wound up fleeing the job for excellent reasons. McCarthy may wind up looking back fondly at this past week as comparatively painless.

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