Kevin McCarthy’s poisoned chalice

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Kevin McCarthy’s poisoned chalice

When U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson quit, he handed a chalice full of poison to Liz Truss. She took the tiniest sip in history, just 45 days in power, and her tormented demise was painful to watch. As she tottered and fell, Rishi Sunak snatched the strychnine cup. Now he must repair his party’s electoral chances while mending Britain’s finances.

Who’d want the job?

Since I ask, I’ll answer. One person who might be tempted to swap with Sunak is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). He’d do himself a favor. The task of saving Britain and the Tory party may prove easier than the one McCarthy faces as speaker of the House.

McCarthy represents a desert district around Bakersfield, so he’s used to arid conditions. But he’ll find the task of controlling a historically tiny majority of maybe 221 to 214 particularly unyielding.

His majority of seven won’t be the smallest ever. That accolade goes to the 1916 Republicans, who took 215 seats while Democrats won 214. But McCarthy won’t be much better off. It will take only four defections in any vote to inflict defeat on him. And defections are certain. Balanced legislatures encourage rebellion.

Just ask Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). He’s been repeatedly thwarted by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and, especially, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). This magazine depicted Manchin on its cover in September 2021 under the headline, “The Party of One.” He has been described as the most powerful man in Washington because, in the 50-50 Senate, success or failure was for him to decide. The fact that he got rolled by Schumer on the deceitful “Inflation Reduction Act” doesn’t change the calculus.

Polls and pundits, including your humble servant, thought the midterm elections would give Republicans a handsome margin in the House that would allow McCarthy to direct legislative and oversight matters with some assurance of getting his way. But it didn’t turn out that way.

Now, seeing their chance, a dozen little Manchins will emerge in the GOP conference with demands for concessions in exchange for their votes. Congress members always do that, but when a speaker can afford to lose only three votes before suffering another humiliation, he is over a barrel. The ornery Freedom Caucus has agreed to cooperate with McCarthy “for now,” which is as contingent as it gets.

In the election, voters sent a message that they wanted effective and reasonable government by leaders focused on issues of importance to ordinary people. They do not want internecine fights. In other words, they’ve made it plain they want precisely the sort of governance that McCarthy’s excruciating majority in the House will be least equipped to deliver.

This does not bode well for a party whose interest is or should be in presenting itself for the next two years as a sober alternative to the fiasco presided over by President Joe Biden, Schumer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

McCarthy has wanted the speakership since at least 2015, when he ran unsuccessfully in the race for it. Now he has it, but it isn’t what he hoped for. He may find it’s a chalice of something unpleasant he’s taking from Pelosi.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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