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Opinion: Kevin McCarthy is in the hot seat before his speaking engagement can even begin

Editor’s note: Patrick T. Brown is a member of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and advocacy group based in Washington, DC. He is also a former senior policy adviser to the Joint Economics Committee of Congress. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. See more opinion on CNN.


Like a treasure hunter wading through the heart of the jungle to find an empty chest, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy thought he was close to achieving his goal of becoming a speaker before that a rebellion on his right flank would put that dream very much in doubt.

Currently, House Republicans are expected to hold a slim majority in the next Congress — 222 seats to Democrats’ 213, if there is no change in the projected winners. McCarthy, who was recently reelected as GOP leader, will need a majority, or 218, of House representatives to vote for him on Jan. 3 to become the next speaker.

That leaves the California Republican only a handful of votes to spare if he wants to win. And CNN’s Chris Cillizza has already counted five Republican congressmen who have expressed their refusal to vote for McCarthy.

With enough negotiations, concessions and deals, the most likely scenario is that McCarthy will get just enough votes. But the uncertain start to his potential term and the challenges he faces within his own caucus reflect both the tumult of trying to lead a legislative body in anti-institutional times and the fundamental uncertainty of what actually the Republican Party.

McCarthy, remember, began his career as a reform-oriented “Young Gun,” posing for the cover of the Weekly Standard with fellow GOP prodigies (and now former Reps.) Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Eric Cantor from Virginia. The populist push in the party eventually sidelined the other two, along with the magazine they appeared in, but McCarthy survived – in part by adopting the pose of an America First culture warrior.

In the spring of 2021, as Democrats passed a US bailout that put billions of dollars in the hands of states and ended up fueling inflation, McCarthy made headlines reading “Green Eggs and Ham” to protest the decision of Dr. Seuss’s estate not to continue publishing. six older books due to racial stereotyping. (“Green Eggs and Ham” was not one of the six books in question.)

McCarthy’s plans for the new Congress are far from ambitious. He boldly announced that each day would begin with a prayer and the oath of allegiance, which Congress already does. He also swore have the Constitution read aloud in its entirety – a nice gesture, but one that Republicans have done in the recent past with little impact on the work of government.

Because the Republican Party is struggling to come up with a cohesive agenda for government (McCarthy’s touted commitment to America was better suited as an attack on President Joe Biden’s administration than a detailed list of proactive points to the agenda), the issues that have caused some Republicans to rebel against a potential McCarthy speaker may seem picayune.

He pledged to seek votes to remove Representatives Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff, both of California, and Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from certain congressional committees, nominally for various violations. But diehard supporters will certainly see it as a reward for Democratic actions, such as the removal of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia from her committee assignments — the kind of DC insider red meat that leaves most voters cold.

Other possible concessions inside baseball are even more in the weeds. Representatives Bob Good of Virginia and Matt Rosendale of Montana, for example, have signaled their desire to bring back the legislative maneuver known as the “motion to leave the chair,” which would allow any member of Congress to request a vote. on the removal the Speaker of the House. This procedure, coupled with a very thin margin, would leave a future President McCarthy in the proverbial hot seat.

And many of the more Trump-friendly figures, like Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, who challenged McCarthy for his leadership position, prefer a speaker more aligned with MAGA. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, another “no” vote against McCarthy, endorsed Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, in part because of his frustration that McCarthy initially said the former president bore some responsibility in the January 6 riots.

But more moderate Republicans would likely avoid Jordan as a candidate, and a centrist candidate would be anathema to the more populist wing. Thus, McCarthy’s path to the president’s chair may end up being the less objectionable option.

Without a clear vision of the Republican Party’s legislative priorities, McCarthy’s presumptive presidency will be mostly oversight. And some aspects of feeding the political base are part of the game. His announced intentions to end proxy voting, which allowed lawmakers to vote remotely, would be the right step, as would the full reopening of the Capitol complex. to visitors.

But McCarthy’s setbacks illustrate how trying to lead in a time when parties and institutions are held captive by an anti-establishment mentality will be an ongoing exercise in frustration. Grassroots-pleasing measures like investigating the president’s son, Hunter Biden, do nothing to solidify Republican support where it’s needed — the middle-class suburbs, who voted decisively against the stunts and for the normalcy in last month’s midterm elections.

Fights over legislative committee assignments and empty culture warfare gestures may suck in political oxygen, but they don’t point the way to a more compelling case for Republican control of Congress. Republicans who can hammer home an agenda that puts parents first and is laser-focused on reducing crime and inflation, will be more appealing to an electorate that is embittered by the MAGA candidates but has also signaled displeasure. towards the Biden administration.

Either Kevin McCarthy will find out or he will be replaced.

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