McCarthy appeases the radicals again

by Jonathan Bernstein

The House bill that sets Pentagon policies for the next year, which began as mundane and bipartisan, passed on Friday on a party-line vote. The bill received a 58-to-1 vote in committee, but radical Republicans offered dozens of amendments on such issues as abortion, book banning, bases named after Confederate generals, and so on. The vote of the full House was 219 to 210. 

It’s highly likely that the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act will be stripped of these provisions. The Senate is already hard at work on its version, which will be approved by a very large bipartisan majority, and the House will probably have to accept that bill, which will then be signed by President Joe Biden. The House bill simply doesn’t have the votes in the Democratic-controlled Senate. 

Still, this episode does not bode well for the rest of the congressional agenda. It’s especially concerning for what it signals about the upcoming showdown over the annual spending bills and the possibility of a government shutdown in the fall. 

The main issue is straightforward: Members of the Republican House Freedom Caucus and other radicals are not acting like legislators. Lawmaking requires compromise, especially during periods of divided government. But this group of Republicans, like their Tea Party or Gingrich Revolution predecessors, doesn’t seem interested in nudging public policy in their direction. Instead, they appear to be set on proving that they are the True Conservatives — and that means drawing lines between themselves and mainstream conservatives in the Republican conference. 

So on this bill, they forced a vote on abortion — despite knowing that the language will not wind up in the final bill and that high-profile fights over abortion appear to be electoral losers for Republicans. In other words, they set up tough votes for many Republicans in close districts. And once these amendments are removed, these radicals will likely vote against the final bill, demonstrating the difference between their purism and their Republican colleagues’ supposed weakness. As they did in the debt-limit fight, they’ll claim that their leadership sold out the party and the conservative movement. 

Forcing tough votes on party members in close districts might be worth it if it produced policy change. But again, no one thinks that these partisan amendments will become law. (Yes, very liberal Democrats sometimes force votes that split their own party; the first two votes on Thursday evening were on Democratic amendments to cut some spending on nuclear weapons that drew opposition from within the party. But those weren’t tough votes for the Democrats. It’s typically relatively moderate Democrats who want to differentiate from their more liberal colleagues, while on the Republican side the relatively moderate members are afraid of drawing primary challengers if they differ from their party.)  

Legislatively, the main effect of the House narrowly passing a partisan version of the defense bill will be to reduce the chamber’s leverage in negotiations with the Senate over provisions that do have a chance to be signed into law. It’s unclear what the next steps will be, but it’s very possible that the Senate will simply insist on its own bill, take it or leave it, and the House will have little choice but to pass it. 

The same thing seems to be happening on the spending bills that must pass to keep the government funded for the next fiscal year. The Senate is preparing bipartisan, compromise bills under the agreement reached last spring to end the debt-limit showdown — but House Republicans, at the urging of Freedom Caucus radicals, are basically ignoring the agreement and working on bills that would slash spending on programs they don’t like. House Republicans may be able to pass those bills, but they will go nowhere in the Senate. 

Most experienced Hill-watchers expect the spending bills to follow the pattern set by the defense bill: The Senate will force the House to accept its bipartisan version. But it’s possible there will be a government shutdown in the meantime. 

Shutdowns happen because some people want them to happen, and those people have the votes. If the House Freedom Caucus wants a government shutdown, and the rest of the House Republicans refuse to stand up to them, there will be a shutdown. Right now, that seems like the most likely outcome — it’s what happened the last two times Republicans gained a House majority with a Democrat in the White House. 

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy should realize that the radicals can’t be appeased, because at the end the day passing legislation is less important to them than claiming that party leadership sold them out. There’s just no way around that. By appeasing them, he’s hurting the reputation and bargaining position of not only his party but also his chamber.  

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.