What to Expect From a Kevin McCarthy Speakership
Kevin McCarthy has a math problem. Despite months of talk about a red wave overwhelming the House and Senate, the next Congress was barely splashed: It will feature a continuing Democratic majority in the Senate and a House controlled by Republicans with a margin of fewer than 10 seats.
It’s the beginning of the final chapter in the era of the Young Guns. Kevin McCarthy is the sole remaining member of the trio given that designation in the pages of the Weekly Standard in 2007; Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor were the other two, but they’re both long out of politics—those Guns have fallen silent. Can McCarthy make good on the promise of those heady days?
McCarthy has wanted to become speaker of the House for a long time. He dropped out of the race to succeed John Boehner in the role in 2015 because he didn’t think he could get the necessary 218 (give or take) votes. (There were 246 other Republicans in the House at the time.)
Now McCarthy is pushing ahead. The Middle-Aged Gun knows he has more votes than any individual challenger does, but he has some reasons to be concerned. While he won the vote in the closed-door House GOP caucus, the actual speakership decision is made in a public roll call vote when the new Congress convenes in January. But with the GOP’s slim new majority (there will be, at most, 222 Republicans in the House then) far-right holdouts like Andy Biggs and Matt Gaetz could theoretically muster enough support to deny McCarthy the speakership.
His reputation for political casuistry has given colleagues to his right and his left a healthy level of distrust in him. As speaker, will he cut deals with Democrats, or perhaps give a wacky Republican a plum committee assignment? A Kevin McCarthy with new firmware seems to emerge for each Congress, with new bugs that become apparent as time goes on.
To get a sense for what we might expect from a McCarthy-run House, I reached out to several of McCarthy’s old House Republican colleagues—all now critics of the Trumpfied GOP. These former representatives are all intimately familiar with the amped-up partisanship of today’s Congress, the varieties of dysfunction in how the House works, and Kevin McCarthy’s personal attributes. So I asked them a few questions aimed at figuring out what we can expect from a McCarthy speakership.
What outlandish scenarios might play out in the House under the slim new GOP majority that includes some extreme-right outliers?
Reid Ribble (who represented the Green Bay region of Wisconsin in the U.S. House from 2011 to 2017): I think the main fight will come over the debt limit. They will obviously want to negotiate some type of spending reductions if they are to raise the debt limit. The most outlandish thing they will do is to not raise the debt limit in time and thus violate the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit Clause and force a government shutdown.
Denver Riggleman (a one-term congressman from Virginia who in 2020 lost a rigged primary to a buddy of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s and went on to serve as a staffer on the House January 6th Committee): I think the most extreme thing—[something] we saw Bob Good and the Freedom Caucus talking about—[would be] . . . nominating Donald Trump for speaker of the House. Second . . . would be an investigation of the January 6th Committee—anything that they can find on the January 6th Committee that [would] somehow suggest improper behavior and improper investigation—[followed by] creating their own bespoke January 6th report.
Mark Sanford (who represented South Carolina in Congress in the 1990s and 2010s, with two terms as the state’s governor in between): I think that you’ll see a lot of noise and . . . different stands here and there, but in terms of actual movement, I don’t suspect this will be a [time] where a lot gets done these next two years, this Congress. And, you know, I think that in and of itself is an accomplishment. . . . They’ll supposedly make stands on spending or debt or deficit, but [those] ring a bit hollow after, you know, the Freedom Caucus support[ing] Trump as they did, with his very casual eye toward debt deficits and things that they allegedly stood for.
Geoff Davis (former four-term Kentucky congressman—and my former boss): I think the bigger question is: There are concessions that are being demanded—for example, demanding that nothing goes to the floor unless the majority of the majority accepts it. Well, that’s great in theory, but I actually watched those fights in conference as a member in the early days of the conservative movement attacking itself that were completely off the rails. The key in those close majorities is you have to have pragmatic politics to know that if I can’t get to 218, I can’t govern. And if I can’t govern, I’m not relevant. And governing becomes the key. Being able to move substantive legislation—not just bills that are going to the Senate for the purpose of dying, but substantive bills, like spending bills and must-pass reauthorizations.
David Jolly (a Hill-staffer-turned-two-term-congressman from Florida): Does just trying to topple McCarthy himself count [as an outlandish scenario]? Because, one, I don’t know that McCarthy gets [the speakership]. Two, I don’t know that he survives [as speaker], certainly not if they get the motion to vacate back in the rules package. . . . I think the House impeaches Joe Biden—without question, I think that’s what they’re gonna do.
Barbara Comstock (who, before she served two terms in the House representing Virginia, was long an important figure in conservative GOP politics in the nation’s capital): None of these far-right guys like Gaetz or Biggs has the ability to extract any concessions or agenda. They are disliked by the caucus at large and they actually strengthen the leadership because they are such misfits. However, the real power of the House will be to stop the excesses [of the Biden administration] and, if they are responsible, focus on the kitchen-table issues they said they would—gas prices, groceries prices, the border, inflation. Get back to economic issues. That’s what unites the party. It would be a mistake to do all the Russia hoax, Hunter Biden stuff that nobody but partisans care about. Get off the election denier Trump train and focus on the future.
What can we realistically expect House Republicans to accomplish in the next two years? How likely are they to accomplish anything good?
Ribble: Ultimately, they will have to fund the government and pass the NDAA [i.e., the defense budget]. Beyond that, I do not see a lot of good things getting done.
Riggleman: It is a bit of a joke. I think with a Senate that’s more than likely gonna be under full Democratic control. . . . I don’t think they accomplish much of anything. . . . When retaliation is your priority over legislation . . . [when many members] aren’t serious about their district [but rather] serious about clicks, somehow getting famous and being hyperbolic enough to be able to raise money nationally with the crazies . . . I don’t think there’s really much they can accomplish with a split government at this point.
Mary Bono (who was elected in 1998 to her late husband Sonny Bono’s House seat from California and retired from Congress a decade ago): What they are going to accomplish and what they actually need to accomplish are two different things. Most of all, they need to show the American people that they can govern, and inform the public as to what they—and the GOP writ large—stand for anymore. Although there have been attempts to re-create a “Contract with America” that have fizzled, something similar to it is exactly what Republicans need to do. A serious and sober agenda, coupled with ratcheting back the “loose cannons” of their conference, is in order now more than ever.
Jolly: The only thing they have to accomplish, as you know, is keeping the government open. I think they’ll end up shutting it down a few times. But if the debt limit’s not [raised] in the lame duck, they’re gonna have to, they’re going to have to solve the debt limit increase, and then they’re gonna have to keep the government open for two years, which I think is going to be incredibly difficult. You know why McCarthy may not survive? The only way to keep the government open is for McCarthy to deal with House Democrats and Chuck Schumer, which is a death knell.
Will Kevin McCarthy have any working relationship with President Joe Biden or Senate leadership?
Ribble: Kevin is a collegial man. He is friendly and most people like him as a person and he is very transactional. This will open some avenues for him if he is willing to use it.
Jolly: You know, he’s just transactional enough. I think he’ll try [to work with Schumer and Biden], until . . . he gets burnt within his own caucus for it. Right? I mean, that is McCarthy’s M.O. He wants to be everybody’s best friend—until they’re not his fan. The moment they’re not giving him what he wants, he throws a fit. I was always surprised during the Boehner years that, even with Republicans holding both houses, Boehner and McConnell didn’t talk that much. There were a lot of times during the shutdowns when Boehner didn’t know what McConnell was going to do. And Boehner was a much stronger speaker than McCarthy will be.
Sanford: Kevin is very, uh, nimble in philosophic terms. I don’t think that there’s a deep philosophical mooring. So I suspect he’ll be pretty pragmatic . . . hopefully watching out for his electoral prospects. It could be that the right flank is a real problem and therefore he’s gonna kowtow to them and therefore won’t talk to the White House. Or it could be that, you know, he sees it in his political best interest to work deals with the White House and the Democrats. But I don’t think [that will be] the case.
Davis: Kevin McCarthy has got a gift in relationship management. . . . The question is going to be what kind of relationship will he work to build with the House and Senate Democratic leadership, specifically with Hakeem Jeffries . . . the two apex leaders in each of their parties. They need to carve out a rapport with each other. I think that some of the fringey groups in each caucus or conference don’t tend to understand that the more that you can stand behind your leader, the more that gives more negotiating authority to your leader to get things done.
How long will McCarthy last? If he were ousted, who would replace him? Would any Republicans ever committing political suicide and defecting?
Ribble: I do think he will last the full two years, but not any longer than that. Tom Emmer or Steve Scalise [would be] the most likely successor. [On defections:] Defections on the vote for speaker? Yes. But probably only Gaetz. There has to be an alternative for people to vote no and right now there isn’t. Defections from the party? No, I don’t see that.
Jolly: I don’t know that he [McCarthy] gets 218 votes. . . .This comes down to how many can he lose. If he’s gonna lose Gaetz and a couple others . . . I don’t think he gets there. Now look, this is weird. He’s the frontrunner, right? But if you’re just setting odds on who can get to 218 . . . I don’t think anybody has good odds right now. . . . I think Scalise is trying to position himself to get it right by endorsing McCarthy and by being everybody’s best friend. Some of the people I talk to question whether Scalise could get it or whether you’d have to go deeper. I think [Elise] Stefanik wants to launch a run. But she can’t get it.
Riggleman: I think [McCarthy] actually lasts the entire two years because I think he’s gonna capitulate. I mean, this has been the job that he’s wanted his entire life, so I think this guy would crawl naked over glass to keep the job. If somehow, though, McCarthy does leave, I know people automatically think about Jim Jordan. Maybe you know, somebody in the Freedom Caucus, maybe a dark horse, you know, that’s out there, you know, that we might not be thinking about—maybe Scalise steps up, or maybe Emmer. Or the Republican Study Committee chair, Jim Banks, who’s still very popular. But now the person I’ve been looking at that’s sort of out there is the Financial Services chair is Patrick McHenry . . probably the savviest and smartest member of the GOP conference.
In just a few weeks, when the new Congress convenes, we’ll find out whether Kevin McCarthy, the former sub shop owner, has the necessary support to get the speakership, that thankless job, after having done pretty much everything that could be expected to make himself seem uninspiring and inevitable. Is Jolly right that McCarthy might not reach the threshold? Or is Ribble right that McCarthy will get the job and keep it?
Either way, the question will then become whether the House GOP will get bogged down in stunts like impeachments and Biden family investigations and dangerous fights over the debt limit, or whether it can, as Comstock advises, “focus on the future.”