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Kevin McCarthy’s Departure: An Unprecedented American Political Meltdown

For the first time, there is the real possibility of a unity coalition with the Democratic minority and a block of moderate Republicanism, writes Grant Stern

Former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy. Photo: Francis Chung/Politico/AP/Alamy

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America has never before seen a minority government in its House of Representatives. But it could now, after the 55th Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, became the first of the lot to be voted out in 233 years since the first Congress met in Phil.

A surprisingly diverse group of eight Republican members of the US Congress pulled the historic first for America, led by infamous Florida man Matt Gaetz. They have kicked off an intra-party war.

These events take on greater significance in light of the actual war Hamas just launched against Israel, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues from the Donbas to the Black Sea.

America’s political duopoly pretty much rules out a coalition government in the House.

Ironically, many of the House’s Republicans place the blame on the opposition party for voting with their own party’s dissenters. That only took place due to the lack of any equivalent of a ‘supply and confidence’ agreement or even a modicum of direct communication through the last week. 

How little did Republicans communicate? Their own interim Speaker didn’t coordinate with anyone and angrily gavelled the body into a two-week vacation (in a pithy moment that went viral), surprising everyone.

It has been 22 years since any member has given a vote for Speaker to a member of the opposing party at the opening of Congress. That member was harshly censured by his own party for that vote before his eventual expulsion from Congress after being convicted of criminal charges. 

In the 113 years since America’s House recognised that motions to remove its Speaker are ‘privileged’ and must be voted upon within two days, this is only the second time a removal vote has been called. It’s the first time that someone who is not already Speaker of the House has called for such a vote. No member has crossed party lines in either vote to vacate the Speaker’s chair.

In the parliamentary system, the Speaker’s role is non-partisan, but in the American system it is quite the opposite. 

Not only do all US spending bills have to originate in the House of Representatives, giving its leader broad powers over the national budget and, therefore, national policy, but the Speaker is also the leader of a party’s caucus politically. Indeed, McCarthy raised gobstopping amounts of corporate cash for the Republicans despite the earlier public pledges of numerous major corporations and wealthy donors having pledged not to support the insurrection enablers in his caucus.

On top of that, all bills must go through legislative committees, and all investigations happen in those committees, which the Speaker single-handedly appoints their heads.

While the Speaker of the House has no executive powers like a prime minister, they sit second in the line of presidential succession. In the event of the departure of both a president and vice president from their offices before a replacement is named, the Speaker gets offered the executive’s role, something which has never before occurred but appeared perilously close on 6 January 2021.

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Earning the Speaker’s gavel requires political skill, policy chops, and, more than anything else, the ability to count votes. Unlike the UK’s House of Commons, the US House has no snap elections and generally doesn’t operate with less than an absolute majority belonging to one party. 

That party decides primarily how to spend $6.72 trillion, directs the world’s largest defence budget, and decides which class of persons gets to keep their earnings (the working class or the capital class).

Now that Speaker Kevin McCarthy is out of office, a group of legislators is now seriously considering a representative whom a past Speaker of his own party called a “legislative terrorist”.

Rep Jim Jordan is considered a leading contender for the job, thanks to his leaked endorsement by the quadruply indicted former president, Donald J. Trump. (A Texas congressman “totally f**ked Trump’s house strategy” when he leaked that information, say party insiders). 

This raises the prospect of Republicans, for the first time ever, seriously seeking help from Democrats to vote for a new leader to form the American version of a ‘supply and confidence’ alliance.

Last year, during the interregnum between the election and the start of the current Congress, I visited DC. There, a senior member of the Democratic caucus told me in his Capitol Hill office, even then, that there were whispers or rumblings about a “unity government” with moderate Republicans joining Democrats to elect a compromise speaker in the face of the rise to power of Jordan’s bomb throwers and Rep Marjory Taylor Greene’s insurrection apologisers.

Now the extremes have failed in two extortion plots, with a third brewing for early November when the latest interim supply agreement to find the budget expires.

In the midst of this right-wing political food fight (a generous description) and McCarthy’s failure to count votes, support for Ukraine’s freedom fighters and funding for America’s entire government to run the world’s largest economy hang tenderly in the balance.

And nobody, not the former Speaker, not the Democratic Party, and not even the other Republicans, expected this vote to happen, let alone succeed.

Unfortunately, the reasons for this unprecedented political meltdown themselves betray a political virus in the minds of one American party: they joined the Government to vote that the Government should not exist.

America’s most extreme block of Republicans – the Freedom Caucus – demanded an immediate one-twelfth reduction in all government spending just in order to secure a short-term funding extension bill. People’s already high health insurance bills would rise; essential government services would be cut. 

The former Speaker presented his extremist members’ demands, with the alternative being to shut the whole Government down – including air traffic controllers, tax collectors, border patrols, and a host of matters considered “non-essential.” These same extremists want to shut down the former President’s many criminal trials with their budgetary powers, but those are considered essential criminal justice matters and interim funded regardless.

This is the same extreme group of law-makers who brought America to the brink of a historic self-own – a legislated and intentional default in debts the nation can pay. Global credit ratings agencies downgraded US long-term debt after their flaccid stunt crumbled in the face of the enormity of their plan to murder the global economy and plunge the US into mass unemployment and chaos.

No sane Speaker will do such a thing, and they refuse to accept it.

So when the extreme Freedom Caucus’ extortion plots hit an apex, their former Speaker McCarthy placed a funding bill without Ukraine funding onto the House floor for a vote. 

That decision was a gambit.

None of the Republicans believed Democrats would call their bluff, but they did to avoid turning Ukraine into a domestic political football. Holding a weak promise from McCarthy of a quick up or down vote on another measure for defence aid, seeing no other avenues to avert disaster, the opposition party pushed through his clean funding bill to extend current supply levels from the Government.

The gambit failed. 

Not only did it turn Republican extremists against McCarthy, but it also split the caucus over Ukraine funding, which is solidly bipartisan in the more sane, upper chamber of the Senate. 

In the end, the former Speaker saved millions of Americans from a devastating government shutdown, stopping their pay-checks for work performed, their food security assistance for the poor, and weakening the country’s national security.

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For that act of governance, eight mostly ‘MAGA’ and Freedom Caucus Republicans retaliated against their Speaker and ended his term.

Likely, McCarthy didn’t know that either his funding vote would pass or that his vote to remain Speaker would not pass, which is a bad play for someone whose primary job is to count to 214, which is 50% plus one vote in the chamber. 

America’s Government is predicated on compromise and so holding only one branch gives one a seat at the table but not the superior hand. This is most especially true when the party, which only holds one branch of government, only holds a single chamber of the legislature and not the White House’s executive branch.

Four years ago, Democrats were in the same situation, holding just the House and there were no debt limit clashes nor any minority party extortion plots. (Donald Trump crossed up lame-duck Republican leaders, shutting the US Government down in late 2018, just before Nancy Pelosi’s ascent).

Unfortunately, the events that led to McCarthy’s ouster were the basic clash with a group of people who believed that compromise was a failure because they couldn’t convince more than a tiny slice of Americans to go along with their brutal vision for society – where the truth is optional, lies are facts, the weak die, and the strong always get stronger. 

Sitting in the House Rayburn Office Building last year, I told the Democratic member who thought we might see a unity government that it would never happen in January. 

Despite frequent rumours that the House Minority Leader who guided their party to flip the chamber’s majority would be side-lined – I said – a unity or minority government Speaker just never comes to fruition because members in the majority party making that choice are committing political suicide. 

Things have changed, now that America’s top ally in the Middle East has just been invaded by an Iranian-backed proxy force, Ukraine’s funding is pending, and the US Government faces a 17 November deadline for Congress to supply funding again after the historic first removal of a sitting House Speaker by a vote.

There is not an overwhelming likelihood that we see a minority Speaker in the House.

However, for the first time, there is the real possibility of a unity coalition with the Democratic minority and a block of moderate Republicans, 18 of whom got elected in districts that backed Joe Biden in 2020, looms large over discussions about who will step into the role after Kevin McCarthy’s disastrous 269-day hold on the gavel ended this week.

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