Now that the debt ceiling has been raised and all the smoke has cleared, it’s worthwhile to step back and assess the political fallout from the first major test of Kevin McCarthy’s speakership. I certainly didn’t think it would end with a whimper, not a bang, but that’s exactly what happened.
Considering how nuts the MAGA Republicans are, and how much clout the House Freedom Caucus holds, it was fair for most of us to assume they would hold McCarthy hostage if he capitulated on any of their demands. After all, that was the whole point of the speakership battle back in January: They wanted the ability to dictate what bills would be voted out of the rules committee and come to the floor. And they guaranteed that by loading the committee with Freedom Caucus members and demanding that any one member could file a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair and require Kevin McCarthy to endure another election.
As the negotiations proceeded (much to the chagrin of progressives who believed that it was a mistake to deal with government hijackers who were stating openly that they were willing to blow up the world economy) the Freedom Caucus members began to wail, led by their leader former president Donald Trump who appeared at a CNN town hall meeting and said:
I say to the Republicans out there — congressmen, senators — if they don’t give you massive cuts, you’re going to have to do a default … you might as well do it now, because you’ll do it later.
He added that defaulting was “really psychological more than anything else” and claimed that it could be nothing or maybe just a bad day or week. That’s a pretty big gamble and one that most experts believe would have been a daft one to take.
The Freedom Caucus didn’t listen to Trump, however, and instead stood down, allowing McCarthy and Biden to make a very unsatisfying deal from their perspective. To be fair, it was a deal one might have expected from any House speaker playing a weak hand with a tiny majority — but not one you would think McCarthy would make with his right flank as batshit crazy as they are. I assumed that in order to keep the country from going over the cliff, Kevin McCarthy would have to give up his speakership or, at the very least, face another painful round of votes, weakening him even further.
That did not happen.
The Freedom Caucus members blew off some steam but one of their top members on the Rules Committee broke ranks and let the bill come to the floor and while most of them didn’t vote for it at all. The deal ended up with 2/3 of the Republicans voting yes. (Freedom Caucus member Lauren Boebert didn’t bother at all saying she refused to even grant the “crap sandwich” her vote but video turned up later showing that she actually just missed it.)
As for the threat to de-throne McCarthy, a few made some noises but in the end, they all seemed to agree that they didn’t need to send him to the political guillotine. At least not yet. The question is why?
Right after the deal was struck, The New Yorker published a report on how it all went down, focusing on Russell Vought, a big MAGA RINO-hunter and Freedom Caucus guru (profiled here in Salon a couple of weeks ago) and his plot to take down McCarthy if he compromised with Biden. It sounded as though he was pretty gobsmacked at the mild reaction among his acolytes, whom he had guided through the speaker battle in January with the expectation that they would be in the driver’s seat. He told the New Yorker, “There was a deal. If you want to go back on that, there are going to be consequences.”
I guess we are seeing what he meant by that. Yesterday, the Freedom Caucus decided it was time to stand up to the speaker and play hardball so a dozen members voted against the procedural rule vote on the floor to show they were mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it anymore. The vote failed and the leadership was surprised and will have to regroup to bring up the bills again.
What were they voting on? Immensely important, vital legislation called the Save Our Gas Stoves Act and Gas Stove Protection and Freedom Act. I guess they really showed Kevin McCarthy who’s boss.
McCarthy lied, the rule died.
— Rep. Ken Buck (@RepKenBuck) June 6, 2023
So the question really is, why are they so lame?
We know that this small rump faction has the power to do some real damage to McCarthy and the rest of the GOP leadership, which is the goal of Vought and others like Steve Bannon. Are they really just paper tigers after all?
The best analysis I’ve seen on this question is from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes in The Atlantic who noted a while back that House Republicans and the MAGA caucus in particular have actually lost interest in actual policy in favor of their crusade against democracy. After all, the fight over deficits, in particular, is extremely dull compared to dismantling the “deep state” and punishing their political enemies.
And it’s important to remember that their decades-long austerity campaigns were really just cover for culture war issues, racism in particular, as the notorious GOP strategist Lee Atwater confessed on his deathbed. Today, they’re no longer constrained by a need for dogwhistles or euphemisms so they don’t need to pretend they are concerned about government spending to cover for their belief that Real Americans’ tax dollars should not go to welfare queens. They just say it outright. The only fiscal issue they truly care about is ensuring that taxes for rich people are kept as low as possible.
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Right now, they’re really only interested in showy hearings and press conferences that will get them a hot hit on Newsmax or maybe Steve Bannon’s War Room. Here’s the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, James Comer, who practically lives on Fox News, insinuating that the FBI Director is going to be killed (or raped) in prison.
The document they’re talking about is some moldy old Burisma transcript from Rudy Giuliani’s bag of tricks.
What we know now is that the Freedom Caucus and their MAGA compatriots aren’t interested in government at all. They are interested in partisan warfare. If Kevin McCarthy doesn’t get in the way of waging those battles he can cut as many deals as he wants. And McCarthy has no intention of doing that. He obviously understood from the beginning that if he gave them free rein to let their freak flags fly he would be perfectly safe.
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