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A Speaker Silenced: Is it a Coup From the Hard-Right?

Staff Writer Glenne Fisher explains the dynamics behind the recent upheavals in the House of Representatives and what is means for US politics.

In a first for the U.S., Congress voted to remove the Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, after upstart Republican Matt Gaetz called a vote to remove him. This was after McCarthy averted a government shutdown at the 11th hour, by agreeing to provide funds to Ukraine, a source of great consternation on the right of the party. This was the final straw for Gaetz and seven other members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-right Republican Congressmen, who joined the Democrats to oust McCarthy by a vote of 216-210.

What Does This Mean for America?

In short – chaos. The vote only further exacerbates deep tensions, making the prospects of quickly electing a new speaker, and thus averting government paralysis, all-the-more unlikely. McCarthy was only elected after 15 rounds of voting, having made great concessions to the Freedom Caucus. Notably, he furnished Gaetz with the axe he would use to cut short McCarthy’s tenure by allowing any member to call a vote to remove the Speaker.

Additionally, the Republican’s razor-thin majority of 222-213 leaves any-and-all future votes uncertain. Coupled with the need to find an imminent solution to the stop-gap budget bill that was passed by November 17th, as well as the pressing need to respond to the ongoing crisis in Israel, this makes the atmosphere in Washington tense at best.

This begs the question: who would seek to become Speaker of the House and lead this unruly mob, now armed with the detonator for the political bomb rigged under the Speaker’s chair?

The Party’s Finest

Surprisingly, given that he has just been chewed up and spit out, McCarthy has backtracked on his previous statement where he ruled himself out of running again. Though, the field is also open for new blood, eager to sit upon this political bomb. His contenders are Ohio’s Jim Jordan and Louisiana’s Steve Scalise.

Scalise is House Majority Leader, making him symbolically heir to the throne. He is liked on the hard-right of the party for upholding strong conservative ideals. For instance, he is an ardent supporter of gun rights, even after being shot at a congressional picnic in 2017 and voting to overturn the 2020 election results following January 6th. Though it is precisely these views that leave a sour taste in the mouths of moderates. Once reported to have called himself “David Duke (the former Grand Wizard of the KKK) without the baggage”, Scalise is no stranger to scandal.

Jordan is cut from much the same cloth as Scalise. As the founder of the Freedom Caucus and Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Jordan is the archetypal darling of the hard-right. He also voted to overturn the 2020 election and has been endorsed by Trump as the next speaker, credentials that don’t exactly endear him to the bulk of House Republicans – the bulk that voted to keep McCarthy.

After the previous three Republican speakers, McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and, John Boehner, were all undone by the hard-right of their party, I wonder whether it’s long overdue for one of their own to be the ringmaster of this circus?

Whoever eventually succeeds McCarthy, the impression will no doubt be that one of the inmates has been given the keys to the asylum.

Looking Backwards to Look Forwards

Personally, I can envisage a re-run of the Clinton-Gingrich rivalry of the mid-90s with a hard-right Republican speaker standing off against a Democratic President over the budget and producing a government shutdown, but with even less civility.

There is however a key difference. Newt Gingrich presided over a much larger majority of 230 seats at a time when the party was united and coordinated in opposing anything that went against their Contract with America.

The Republican Party of today cannot even decide on who they want as speaker, let alone rallying behind anything that approaches a common manifesto. Their attacks on fellow Republicans are even more vicious than those on their Democratic opponents. Marjorie Taylor Greene, full-time nutjob and part-time Congresswoman, for example called fellow Freedom Caucus member Lauren Boebert a “little bitch”. This is a party divided on anything and everything and that is how it will remain.

The Legacy of Trump

Perhaps a more accurate reflection of today’s circumstances is that of Trump’s first 2 years as President. Even with a safe Republican majority in the House, the Senate, and President in the White House, legislation was constantly upended. This was usually due to petty infighting, name-calling, and staggering levels of incompetence, which have since become hallmarks of Trump’s Republican party. Today there is the same vitriol as there was under Gingrich, but without the respectable façade of command and consensus from the party elite, and less appetite for compromise to achieve the party’s aims.  

Famously, Former Republican Senator for Arizona and one-time nominee for President, John McCain, blocked the only credible attempt of over 70 to repeal Obamacare, a cornerstone goal of the Republican party for almost a decade. He did so partly due to Trump’s remarks about him being captured during the Vietnam war and having terminal cancer, and partly due to his dedication to bipartisanship.  

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash and election of Obama in 2009, the right of the party has arguably seized ownership of the party’s moral compass. Yet, the radical fringe has never managed to have one of their own true believers lead them in the House. With McCarthy’s ouster comes their chance. Will they take it? And, perhaps more interestingly, will they tear themselves apart in the process?   

In any event one thing is certain: time is of the essence. With ongoing domestic and overseas crises, America doesn’t have the luxury of sitting tight while Republicans figure it out. No matter what happens, the American people once again will lose out as the GOP fiddles while Washington burns.     

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