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The CR is only a short break from Republicans' forever tantrum
They can't govern. And they wouldn't want to if they could.
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This week the House passed a stopgap spending bill funding the government through the holidays. Though the GOP holds the majority in the chamber, newly minted Speaker Mike Johnson needed Democratic votes to pass the continuing resolution (CR); the final numbers were 336-95; with Democrats 209-2 and Republicans 127-93.
Two more Republicans voted against this bill than voted against the last CR in September. Back then, the House’s rabid right wing was so incensed that Speaker Kevin McCarthy had relied on Democratic votes that they booted him from office, leading to weeks of clownish dysfunction as the GOP struggled to find a suitable replacement.
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They eventually settled on Louisiana backbencher Mike Johnson. But then Johnson turned around and immediately did the same thing McCarthy did — the difference being that, instead of tossing Johnson from office, the right-wing hardliners have barely grumbled this time around.
McCarthy scuffed dirt on the House Freedom Caucus, and the Freedom Caucus responded by running him over with a dump truck, then backing over him in reverse for good measure. Johnson scuffed dirt on the HFC, and the HFC drove their dump truck into a corner and sulked. What changed?
One big thing that’s different is that Johnson isn’t McCarthy. Another is that the GOP is probably at least temporarily tired of punching itself in the face.
But the fact that the caucus drew a line in the sand then shrugged and stepped over it just a month later also indicates that the caucus simply isn’t serious. The GOP mostly wants to scream and throw tantrums and let Democrats do all the actual work of governing.
Everyone hates McCarthy
Whatever other factors are at play, one truth is undeniable: Kevin McCarthy appears to have been seen as uniquely untrustworthy and mendacious on both sides of the aisle.
McCarthy promised spending cuts in the September CR, then didn’t deliver, infuriating the Freedom Caucus. And Democrats never forgot that after initially condemning former President Donald Trump’s coup attempt and telling colleagues he supported a formal censure, McCarthy cravenly reversed himself. Just weeks after January 6, he rushed to Florida for a Trump photo-op, re-solidifying Trump’s position as leader of the party.
“Nobody trusts Kevin McCarthy. And why should they?” progressive leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal said last month. Around the same time, Matt Gaetz of Florida, a far-right conservative, said almost exactly the same thing: “Look, the one thing everybody has in common is that nobody trusts Kevin McCarthy.”
In that context, it’s worth noting that this week McCarthy apparently delivered an elbow shiver to Tennessee GOP Rep. Tim Burchett in a Capitol hallway — and then lied about it, prompting an ethics complaint from Gaetz. (Burchett and Gaetz were two of the eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy from the speakership.)
Johnson in contrast has not, to anyone’s knowledge, assaulted any of his colleagues. He’s a quiet and boyish congressman who’s apparently “well-liked” by his caucus despite (or because of) the fact he may think the earth is 6,000 years old and wants to ban abortions without exceptions for rape and incest.
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Perhaps most importantly, since Johnson hasn’t come up through the usual channels of House leadership, he hasn’t really been making deals or promises to stakeholders, and therefore hasn’t been in a position to publicly betray anyone, or everyone.
The Johnson honeymoon won’t last long
Johnson will likely need to start obfuscating soon enough, though. And indeed he seems to be well on his way already. In public statements, he’s said the stopgap measure will allow the House GOP to “cool off” and promised to push through and pass conservative spending bills before the CR expires in mid-winter.
“You’re going to see this House majority stand together on our principles,” he said.
But that sunny prediction doesn’t reflect the actual state of the House GOP, which remains divided, to put it mildly. House conservatives have again and again wasted floor time by trying to push symbolic, unpassable, churlish butthead amendments to defund Vice President Kamala Harris’s office, or reduce the salary of the White House press secretary to $1.
Meanwhile, the House GOP has been unable to unite to pass five of its 12 appropriations bills, much less negotiate a compromise with the Democratic Senate, where spending levels are currently tens of billions of dollars apart.
To cite the latest example of House Republicans being unable to reach agreements with themselves, 19 conservatives joined with Democrats Wednesday to defeat a procedural vote to advance the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill. The conservatives barely offered a reason for their rebellion; Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry said the negative vote was "a response to our dissatisfaction and our unwillingness to comply and play a part in this failure theater.”
In other words, the HFC was cranky that Johnson was relying on Democratic votes to fund the government temporarily, and they therefore decided to join with Democrats to torpedo their own long-term spending priorities. The GOP doesn’t agree on much, but it does agree on one thing — if you want to get something done, you have to rely on Democrats to lead the way.
Bottom line: Republicans don’t want to govern
This is one of the core hypocrisies of the Republican House. The GOP says Democrats are evil and that engaging with them is anathema. But at the same time, Republicans need Democrats to lead if they’re going to engage in their preferred activities — performing for partisan media and grifting donors.
Gaetz got innumerable TV hits when he led the initial effort to deny McCarthy the speakership at the beginning of the congressional session in January. He also reaped a donor windfall with his highest single-day fundraising total from itemized donors, bringing in about $50,000.
Relitigating the speaker fight last month wasn’t in the interests of Republicans as a whole, necessarily, but it was obviously a bonanza for Gaetz and for others like him who wanted to posture as the True Republicans fighting against the evil RINOs.
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The Republican media bubble loves garbage populist anti-establishment boilerplate, and rewards those who peddle it with fame and fortune — which is why Ted Cruz is much more focused on promoting his oleaginous podcast than he is on senatoring, and why members of Congress have nasty personal feuds over whose DOA Biden impeachment articles get pointlessly voted down first. They all want Fox News hits a lot more than they want to pass … well, anything.
This point was made powerfully on the House floor Wednesday by Democratic Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, who described House Republicans as “a minority party masquerading as a majority party.”
Gaetz and company may like Johnson more than McCarthy. But the reason they didn’t have a huge speaker battle this week is probably less about that, and more about self-interest, very narrowly defined. They got their big grandstand moment, their bags of donor cash, and their TV spots. You don’t want to go to the well too often. They can let Johnson get through the holidays before throwing another screaming fit for dollars and attention.
Democrats to the rescue
While paralysis and pointless poo-throwing may be good for individual members, it’s not so great for the party as a whole. Or, as hyper-conservative Texas Rep. Chip Roy put it in a frustrated House floor speech Wednesday that went viral, “I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing — one — that I can go campaign on and say we did. One!”
If the GOP shut down the government, it would become even clearer than it already is that they are useless nonentities. So they rely on Democrats to save them even as they denounce Democrats for saving them. McCarthy needed Dems to fund the government. Johnson needed Dems to fund the government. When the GOP couldn’t choose a speaker for weeks, Republican members kept whining to the press that they needed Democrats to vote for a reasonable alternative and save them — a startling admission that the GOP sees Democrats as the more competent and responsible party, and depends on them to fix their messes.
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To some degree, it’s good for Democrats that Republicans are incompetent bounders and grifters who attack each other in hallways and constantly conk their heads together like coconuts. GOP priorities are largely harmful for Americans who aren’t rich white Christian dudes, so better to have a GOP that can’t pass anything — up to a point.
The problem is that there are some things government needs to do regardless of which party is in charge, like providing emergency aid for disaster relief, conducting oversight of other branches of government, and paying government workers. The GOP strategy of engaging in wanton wreckery while relying on Democrats to be guardrails is essentially playing chicken with the Constitution and with the safety and security of the United States.
Endless Republican infighting over the budget is amusing. It’s also unfortunately a sad, confused promise of worse to come, especially if Republicans maintain control of at least the House next year —and heaven forbid they win more than that.
That’s it for this week
We’ll be back with more Monday. If you appreciate this post, please support Public Notice by signing up. Paid subscribers make this work possible.