The Speaker Vote Made Republicans Look Weak, but That Won’t Last

Republicans don’t have enough power to pass anything on their own. But they still have plenty of power to cause chaos and, depending on how Democrats react, force terrible budget cuts on the country.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy is seen after he won the speakership on the fifteenth ballot on Saturday, January 7, 2023. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

After spending the week giving progressively more concessions to a caucus of right-wing lawmakers centered around Florida representative Matt Gaetz, Kevin McCarthy was finally elected Speaker of the House in the early hours Saturday. It took fifteen ballots.

While such negotiations and concessions (if not this many votes) are common in many other multiparty democracies, they’re rare in modern US history — all the more so because the two opposing sides were in the same party. Rarer still is the chance to see so much of it play out in public.

The spectacle left elected Republicans looking divided, at least in the short term. It took less than 10 percent of the House Republican caucus to utterly humiliate McCarthy. Noted extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Donald Trump supported McCarthy from the beginning, but that still wasn’t enough to satisfy an even more aggressive minority of the caucus. With a very slim majority over Democrats, and with Republicans practically coming to blows with one another on the House floor, Kevin McCarthy is set to be a historically weak Speaker of the House.

But it would be a mistake to write House Republicans off yet. They don’t have enough power to pass anything on their own. But they still have plenty of power to cause chaos, and, depending on how Democrats react, force terrible budget cuts onto the country.

Apparently Gaetz only relented and allowed McCarthy to become Speaker when, as Gaetz said, “I ran out of things I could even imagine to ask for.” One reason McCarthy was willing to cave on so much is that most of Gaetz’s demands were in service of things nearly all Republicans want: cutting social spending and increasing dysfunction with the hope of making the idea of the government as a social good less popular.

Personal animus between Gaetz and McCarthy was a factor in the extended negotiations — according to reports, Gaetz feels McCarthy did not sufficiently defend him when he was accused of sex trafficking a minor. It was also, in part, a factional beef, and an attempt to get members of the comparatively younger and more recently elected far-right Freedom Caucus into congressional committees of greater influence.

Some of the concessions Gaetz extracted from McCarthy included increased committee seats for members of the Freedom Caucus; increased power for the House to cut government officials’ salaries; a variety of rules aimed at cutting or restricting spending; and the right of any one member of the House to force a vote of no confidence in the Speaker. But perhaps the most consequential concession to Gaetz is a new requirement to pair raising the country’s debt ceiling with spending cuts.

This last concession hints at the real reason McCarthy could afford to withstand Gaetz’s humiliation: weakening the Speaker’s power strengthens the Republican agenda. The real core of the debate was not over what Republicans should do, but how — and how aggressively — they should do it.

While Joe Biden and a Democrat-led Senate will nominally negotiate with the new Speaker over keeping the country running, McCarthy can claim he is bound by the austerity-focused House rules he just agreed to. Beyond that, he can point to the real possibility of a member of Gaetz’s clique removing him from office if he doesn’t toe the line.

Thus a situation that appears to weaken McCarthy’s hand actually strengthens it. Since he is situated with very little room to maneuver, it will be Democrats who will have to move toward him in negotiations if they want to keep the government operating. With Republicans increasingly willing to shut down the government to force through policies for which they lack a popular mandate, a Speaker incapable of disciplining his caucus puts more pressure on Democrats, but not on Republicans, to compromise.

Democrats had the chance to eliminate the debt ceiling before Republicans took office — a move even moderates like Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen support. That might not have prevented Gaetz from acting out, but it would have taken away by far the greatest piece of leverage he and the far right have in Congress. But unlike the Right, Democrats chose not to use their power. The country will live with the consequences this year and beyond.