Finally, after four days of gruelling ballots that was laced with coercing, pleading, arm-twisting, bribing and finger-jabbing, Kevin McCarthy (pictured) was able to flip some 20 conservative holdouts to become his supporters – or at least not explicit opponents in his bid to Speakers’ gravel. This kind of intraparty standoff is unprecedented in modern times.
With 15 ballots - not since 1860 in the build-up to the American Civil War has the lower chamber of Congress voted this many times to pick a speaker - and a midnight vote that witnessed a near-fistfight, McCarthy has been eventually elected a Speaker of the House.
The fact is that McCarthy has made many generous compromises and concessions to the conservatives that will seriously hamper his handling of the House in the coming days. He conceded to the most crucial demand of the conservative holdouts pertaining to the “motion to vacate”, giving power to any of 435 members of the House to initiate a vote on whether to remove the Speaker any time. The motion to vacate allows that even one legislator can trigger a vote of no-confidence against the speaker.
As per the existing rule, five members are needed to launch any such vote to remove the speaker, but the conservatives have been demanding a change in the rule to allow any single member to initiate such proceedings – making McCarthy and all subsequent speakers vulnerable to uncertainty.
Another important concession promised by McCarthy is related to the process of passage of different bills in the House, which over the years have tilted towards more behind closed doors negotiations and passed on short notice with little debate.
The conservatives want the return of the detailed process of olden days and McCarthy has yielded to this demand. While reverting back to the traditional rules of the legislation in the House is a good cause in its spirit, but it creates more complications for McCarthy in steering the House as well as it will pile up a lot of legislative burden.
He also promised to his opponents within his party to pursue deep cuts in government spending to achieve a balanced federal budget in 10 years, beginning in October. For quite some time, the conservatives have been seriously criticising the unprecedented surge in the federal spending and they demanded from McCarthy to employ restraints during his speakership.
Obviously, being in majority, Republicans have the leverage to control the budget levels, but they will be compelled to bargain with Democrats in the Senate to approve spending legislation. But, in a divided Congress, compromises are the necessity, and McCarthy’s concessions raise the spectre of a deadlock between the two parties to reach a deal when the federal government comes up against its $31.4 trillion ($46 trillion) debt limit later this year.
In case of their failure to reach agreement, or even a long standoff, has the potential to trigger a journey towards default that would jolt the global economy. The chaotic start to the new Congress, that too from within the Republican majority, will be quite problematic for McCarthy in the same way that some of his Republican predecessors, including former Speaker John Boehner, had problems in dealing with a cohort of rebellious right-wingers, which resulted in premature resignation of Boehner.
Ceding powers to an extremist group of the party, despite full-fledged support of Donald Trump, who actually claimed credit for McCarthy’s win in the speaker fight, is going to cast its long shadow over Republicans’ intent to create problems for President Biden by launching much-hyped investigations into his family business and administration.
Regardless of the fact that conservative group within Republicans comprises less than two dozen members, they have exploited McCarthy very astutely and they will soon start a new palaver in the House to ensure their existence. It will be interesting to see how McCarthy and Trump maneuver this group to have smooth sailing.