A house divided against itself cannot stand: Kevin McCarthy’s pyrrhic victory

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Following 15 attempts, Kevin McCarthy was finally elected as the new Speaker of the House of Representatives on 7th January, allowing Republican leadership to be restored to the House for the first time in four years. However, McCarthy’s election was far from simple – not only did he face dissent from many notable far-right members in his party, but serious concessions also had to be made on the part of McCarthy, making him one of the weakest House Speakers by mandate in recent history.

Coming off the back of a slight majority in the 2022 midterm elections, the Republican Party managed to seize control of the House, making McCarthy (who had served as Minority Leader of the House from 2019-2023) the clear frontrunner to be elected as the new Speaker. Despite this, notable far-right Republicans – spearheaded by Representatives Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert – refused to back McCarthy, perceiving him not to be radical or conservative enough. 

Although McCarthy is viewed to be traditionally on the right of the Republican Party, as well as being at least publicly supported by former President Donald Trump, his lack of support among the far right reflects a broader identity crisis for the Republican Party in the post-Trump era. With the two wings of traditional conservatism and radical Trumpism having entrenched divisions, it will be a struggle for McCarthy to attempt to unite these two factions into a solid legislative base. 

[McCarthy’s] lack of support among the far right reflects a broader identity crisis for the Republican Party in the post-Trump era

For many of McCarthy’s critics within the Republican Party, the political chaos of the repeated failed votes has clearly boosted their platform. Many members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of far-right Republicans, have been promised seats on vital House committees as part of McCarthy’s concessions, allowing them to be able to set some of the agenda in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, given that just one vote is needed to call for a vote to remove McCarthy, these right-wing critics hold significant power and could make McCarthy’s tenure incredibly short. 

In comparison to Republicans, the Democratic caucus in the House is currently undergoing a relative show of unity, with new Democratic leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries elected without any opposition within his party, becoming the first African American person to lead either party caucus within the House. However, the current unity of the Democratic caucus is not necessarily guaranteed, with the infighting between the centrist and left-wing factions within the party under Nancy Pelosi possible to continue. 

The current unity of the Democratic caucus is not necessarily guaranteed

With a divided Congress between a Republican-led House and a Democrat-led Senate, President Biden could face serious political gridlock in passing legislation for the next two years of his presidency. Vital political projects, including annual budgets and ringfencing spending for Ukraine, may struggle to be passed, stretching the limits of political infrastructure, and risking the chance of government shutdowns if Congress fails to pass legislation, similar to government shutdowns from 2018-2019 when Congress was similarly divided. Alongside this, Biden might face increasing criticism over his policy towards Ukraine – with many Republicans wary of spending more money to support the resistance effort – as well as Hunter Biden’s connections to Ukraine.

Ultimately, for McCarthy, his efforts to become House Speaker can be seen as both a victory and a loss. Despite achieving a job he has been seeking for years, the concessions he has made to get there make him subject to the whims of his own party, drastically limiting his authority and capability to set a political agenda.

Image: C-SPAN via Wikimedia Commons

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