McCarthy’s speaker chaos could make Democrats more powerful

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries speaks at a podium.
Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries speaks on January 6, 2023, during a remembrance ceremony marking the anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. | Nathan Howard/Getty Images

A fractured GOP could be good news for Democrats.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy has become speaker of the House, but only did so by offering offered a series of concessions that effectively mean his speakership will consistently be under threat from his own caucus.

McCarthy’s agreement to weaken the role of the speaker is likely to lead to extreme gridlock within the ranks of the GOP. But it could also present an opening for Democrats. If far-right lawmakers in the GOP follow through on their promises to hold up pivotal spending and debt ceiling legislation, Republicans may well have to rely on Democrats’ help to get any bills across the finish line — a dynamic Democrats could capitalize on.

“The deal is, if they want to get stuff done, they’re going to have to work with us,” says Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee. “And we’re not going to be a cheap date.”

Given Republicans’ narrow 222-person majority, they can’t really pass much if they lose any more than five votes in their own conference. Since conservatives have been vocal about their commitment to blocking key bills, like an increase to the debt ceiling, in order to get the spending cuts they want, Republicans will likely need Democratic votes to keep essential government functions and services running if they want to do so.

Additionally, given the number of Freedom Caucus members added to the House Rules Committee, Democrats could theoretically join with the conservatives on the panel to block or slow bills favored by House GOP Leadership.

The situation gives Democrats more leverage to put forth their own demands, if Republican leadership is actually interested in getting anything done. Of course, there’s a high chance that they aren’t, a reality Democrats are preparing to confront as well.

“I think there is an opportunity,” says Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), a member of the Rules Committee. “But it’s just such an unusual time — and it’s so hard for so many of them to reach across the aisle.”

The GOP may well need Democratic help on key bills

Republicans can only lose a handful of votes before any bill falls short of the simple majority it needs to advance, which gives Democrats an opening.

In the last decade or so, there have been times when House Republicans have relied on Democratic support when their conference has similarly fractured. In 2011 and 2014, Republican House Speaker John Boehner needed Democratic votes to approve spending bills to fund the government, for example.

That same dynamic could play out this term, with Republicans relying on Democratic help to make up for the support they’re missing in their own caucus. “These people who are causing all this nonsense right now — you can’t work with them. They can’t ever get to yes,” said McGovern.

Ultimately, House Republicans will need to get a majority to pass bills including an increase to the debt ceiling, spending legislation, the farm bill — which authorizes many Agriculture Department programs — and a defense bill that lays out funding for the military. Were conservative members to withhold their support for such policies, the GOP wouldn’t be able to pass the bills on their own. If they aren’t able to, they risk scenarios like the country defaulting on the national debt and causing an economic crisis, as well as a potentially interminable government shutdown.

As Republicans have shown in the past, after the US nearly defaulted on its debt in 2011, and when it went into a shutdown in 2013, members of the party could well be okay with those scenarios playing out. In both those cases, however, House Republicans also garnered significant public backlash for their role in causing these debacles, and eventually passed agreements that were reached with Democratic support.

As Vox’s Andrew Prokop noted, however, any Republican attempts to reach across the aisle this term could also prompt blowback from the conservative wing, who may threaten the speaker as a result. As part of his bid to become speaker, McCarthy reportedly offered a rules change that will allow any one Republican to force a vote of “no confidence.”

Known as the motion to vacate, this would allow a single member to call a vote on the speaker’s ousting if they weren’t happy with how he was handling a particular bill or issue. Theoretically, a single far-right member could punish any collaboration with Democrats by submitting a motion to vacate, forcing a vote against the speakership. A majority of members would still have to agree to remove him, though. Some Democrats warned that the rule changes McCarthy agreed to in order to become speaker could blunt collaboration for fear of reprisals.

“It does feel like they may need to get in the middle more to get anything done. But I’m not sure that giving more weapons to the most extreme folks is going to promote that goal,” Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA), a member of the Rules Committee, told Vox.

Republican concessions could mean complete dysfunction

The best case for Democrats is that they’re able to slip a few of their priorities into must-pass legislation. But, as Scanlon alluded to, there’s a worst-case scenario as well: utter gridlock.

In addition to the change on the motion to vacate, which could cause GOP leadership to shy away from bipartisan dealmaking, McCarthy’s concessions included adding multiple members of the Freedom Caucus to the Rules Committee, which plays a key role in deciding what bills make it to the floor and what amendments get considered. Should three ultraconservative Republicans be added to that committee, something McCarthy agreed to, they’d be able to delay bills and push more extreme versions of policies.

That’s led some Democrats to worry these changes will empower Republicans’ conservative flank to use the panel for obstruction. “We have a small faction basically holding Congress hostage,” Scanlon says. “Many of the rules changes that are being proposed by this kind of extreme faction have the same goal.”

Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA), a member of the Rules Committee, notes that conservatives could gum up the process on bills by forcing debate on amendments, whether or not they are germane to the legislation at hand. “It’s impossible to legislate from that perspective,” she said.

Interestingly, Democrats could use potential rules changes to their advantage, too, argues Daniel Schuman, a policy expert at the progressive advocacy group Demand Progress. Although Democrats aren’t able to use the motion to vacate in the same way as Republicans, they would be able to offer their own amendments to bills like appropriations legislation if those changes came to fruition.

“They’re creating a lot of veto points for legislation, and more opportunities to amend that legislation,” says Schuman. “And those opportunities, in many circumstances, will be available to all members, not just to Republican members.”

Additionally, as Prokop explained, the appointments of Freedom Caucus members to the Rules Committee could give Democrats the ability to form unexpected coalitions and throw their weight around. Previously, the Rules Committee had 13 members, nine in the majority and four in the minority. Were McCarthy to use that same breakdown, and give three seats to Freedom Caucus members, there would be nine Republicans, three of whom would be hardline conservatives, along with four Democrats. In that instance, the Democrats and hardline conservatives could theoretically work together to form a seven-person majority.

It remains to be seen how likely any kind of bipartisan collaboration would be given how polarized the two parties are. Republicans’ narrow margins, however, could lead to Democrats using their numbers in interesting ways.

“The Freedom Caucus could build an alliance with some or all the Democrats, the McCarthy faction could build an alliance with some or all the Democrats, or the McCarthy faction and the Freedom Caucus could build an alliance with each other,” says Schuman.

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