McCarthy’s momentum

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McCarthy’s momentum

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When it took 15 ballots for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to secure the gavel, few gave the new, slender Republican majority much chance of governing successfully.

The midterm elections handed Republicans just a nine-seat advantage in the House, with the most fractious members of the Freedom Caucus supplying the margin of victory on any contentious piece of legislation. Activists, and some Republican voters, wanted somebody, anybody, punished for the absence of the red wave. Yet the leadership team across the party, from the House to the Republican National Committee, remained largely intact, leaving many inside the GOP in a bad mood.

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A few months later, however, things haven’t been so bad. Republicans have managed to pass legislation that divides Democrats. Some of these measures have made it through the Senate, where Republicans not only lack a majority but actually lost a seat last year. President Joe Biden has even felt the need to assent to a couple of GOP-passed bills, though he has already vetoed one and is at this writing about to issue the second of his presidency.

But the biggest test lies ahead. The showdown over the debt ceiling between House Republicans and the Biden White House remains unresolved. Without a solution, the federal government risks default sometime this summer. Even cutting it close could risk a credit downgrade at a time when unemployment is low and inflation is improving, but uncertainty pervades the economy. A defeat or Pyrrhic victory would easily outweigh the small successes McCarthy’s young majority has notched since January.

Already the White House is salivating over the prospect of fighting Republicans on this as Biden insists on a clean debt ceiling increase without preconditions and is highlighting McCarthy’s failure to produce a budget backed by the whole GOP conference. “As we have been saying over and over again, if the House Republicans want to talk about a budget, want to show us what they value, what they see as fiscally responsible and show that to the American people, and want to have that conversation, the president is happy to do that,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One at the end of last month.

But there are reasons for the White House to temper its glee. The first is that the economic ramifications of any debt ceiling delay affect Biden, too, presumably while he is in the middle of running for reelection. The second is that House Republicans haven’t proved all that ineffective so far, even if their pace of legislative success is below average historically.

One thing McCarthy has done that has helped Republicans overcome long odds — they only control half of one elected branch of the federal government — is identify legislation that cannot be filibustered or kept off the legislative calendar by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). The Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to repeal regulations published in the last 60 days, is one way to do that. Resolutions of disapproval of Washington, D.C., laws are another.

The next step is finding areas that divide Democrats. There is a generational and ideological split within the party over crime, with Biden trying to push Democrats away from defunding the police even as some big-city mayors and councilors position themselves well to the president’s left. Environmental policy is another flashpoint, given the variety of local economic needs represented by Democratic lawmakers.

Then there is the simple fact that Schumer has had more difficulty corralling his troops than McCarthy has. Democrats picked up a Senate seat, to be sure, but still have only a 51-49 majority. Plagued by absences, especially with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) convalescing at home with a case of shingles and Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) until recently in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center suffering from a bout with depression, there have been times when Schumer has lacked a functioning majority.

Another problem Schumer faces in his dance with McCarthy is that the Senate map is daunting for Democrats in 2024. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) is seeking reelection in a state Republicans will surely win at the presidential level, no matter what happens in the rest of the country. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is considering doing the same. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) still caucuses with Senate Democrats but has already technically left the party to improve her reelection chances. Nevada’s two Democratic senators aren’t taking their party’s recent narrow wins in the state for granted.

Schumer may not have needed 15 ballots to win his job. But he does have a lot of possible defectors built into his caucus. Republicans still command nearly half the Senate. His margin for error is no greater than McCarthy’s, and vulnerable centrists could pose as much of a challenge as the Freedom Caucus.

The vote on overturning a crime bill passed by the liberal Council of the District of Columbia was instructive. The nation’s capital is suffering a crime wave, like many large, Democratic-governed urban areas. The issue limited Democratic gains in the 2020 elections and remained a liability in the midterm elections. Democrats on the D.C. Council responded by relaxing penalties for serious crimes ranging from carjackings to homicides — over the mayor’s objections.

Biden and the Democrats support D.C. statehood. Short of being able to deliver that, they would like to be seen as strongly supportive of home rule. But D.C.’s three electoral votes are assured next year. The votes of suburbanites worried about urban lawlessness intruding into their neighborhoods remain vigorously contested and may prove unavailable to Democrats seen as soft on crime.

The White House issued a statement of policy saying that it opposed a Republican effort to overturn this law, as Congress has the constitutional authority to do in the federal district. But cooler heads in the West Wing eventually prevailed, considering the optics of defending this crime policy. Biden blinked.

“I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule — but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings,” Biden said in a Twitter statement shortly after informing Senate Democrats in a closed-door meeting of his new position. “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.” House Democrats received no comparable head’s up.

Democrats were taken aback by the abruptness of Biden’s shift. Liberal activists and commentators denounced it as an opportunistic sellout. “Democratic presidents in the past have done troubling and at times truly terrible things to appease centrist White voters and win elections,” lamented Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon.

Nevertheless, the floodgates were opened, and many Senate Democrats eagerly took the political cover Biden had belatedly given them.

On declassifying intelligence on COVID-19 origins, Democrats did not mount even token opposition to legislation McCarthy moved to force Biden’s hand. The House passed it 419-0. It then cleared the Senate by unanimous consent. The White House didn’t appear too happy, but Biden quietly signed the bill into law at the same time as the D.C. crime resolution. A veto would have been pointless and certainly overridden with those margins.

McCarthy’s other COVID-19 victory came on lifting the national emergency. As was the case with crime in D.C., most House Democrats tried to hold the liberal line, assuming Biden was with them. Instead, the White House abandoned them rather than letting McCarthy get them on the wrong side of public opinion, and many Senate Democrats followed.

Republican wins against woke ESG investing and rolling back a Biden administration clean water rule will be shorter-lived. Biden has already vetoed the first bill and is set to do the same with the second. But once again, House Republicans held together and Senate Democrats fragmented, at least at the margins.

But the path ahead is difficult for McCarthy. His past wins will matter little if he is unable to deliver on the debt ceiling. If he cannot secure spending cuts, conservative disaffection will grow to the point where it threatens his speakership. But if he flirts with a calamitous result on default, the whole Republican majority could come crashing down with the economy.

Spending fights have imperiled Republicans before. The government shutdowns of 1995-96 stalled GOP momentum after historic electoral triumphs. Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich never fully recovered. Bill Clinton did, however, and won a second term in the White House.

House Republicans fought with then-President Barack Obama over the debt ceiling more than a decade ago. Biden was vice president and participated in the negotiations. Democrats still controlled the Senate. Republicans won real spending concessions without eviscerating Social Security or Medicare. But they also barely averted a default crisis, and Obama was able to paint their fiscal maneuvers as irresponsible.

This history gives Biden and the White House confidence. If Republicans pick this fight, they rather than Biden will get the blame if things go wrong. The past House Republican majorities all survived, but the Democratic presidents they tangled with all won second terms.

McCarthy’s majority is implicitly based on spending control. Republicans ran and won on the issue of inflation, which for much of the campaign was running at a 41-year high. Spending is the main thing Congress does that drives inflation. But Biden is probably right that this is not quite a mandate for specific spending cuts, much less major reforms to popular government programs, and GOP lawmakers are divided on where to cut.

The Freedom Caucus has stepped in to fill a vacuum created by the absence of a House Republican budget. This has also made the conservative lawmakers’ proposed spending cuts, dubbed a “five-alarm fire” by the White House, Biden’s main target, much like Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) last year. But the Freedom Caucus is no group to be trifled with, thanks to the size of the Republican majority, the reforms it won to make it easier to replace the speaker, and its decisive role in McCarthy’s ascension.

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What happens next is a test of McCarthy’s leadership, the Freedom Caucus’s political maturity and commitment to the California Republican running the chamber, and perhaps Biden’s vaunted legislative deal-making skills.

Then we will learn the House Republican majority’s true ceiling.

W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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