McCarthy victim of long GOP revolution

by Carl P. Leubsdorf

Years of broken promises, political reversals and obeisance to the GOP’s Trumpian elements finally caught up this week with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

By reneging on last May’s budget deal with President Joe Biden and on procedural promises to fellow Republicans, he angered both the Democrats and a crucial cadre of GOP right-wing members. The result: Tuesday’s unprecedented vote abruptly ending his nine-month speakership.

In a larger sense, however, McCarthy fell victim to a decade-long Republican revolution that turned the GOP from a moderate conservative party that worked for smaller government and stronger defense to a divided party whose most extreme right-wing elements often hold sway.

That revolution hamstrung the last two Republican speakers before ousting this one and made it very difficult for House Republicans to govern, even when they had more than their current five-seat majority.

Facing the same ouster move that befell McCarthy, Speaker John Boehner quit Congress. His successor, Paul Ryan, retired rather than deal with an unruly GOP conference and a mercurial President Donald Trump. Now, McCarthy has become the first speaker in House history forced out in mid-term.

This revolution started with the tea party movement more than a decade ago, spread with Donald Trump’s election to the presidency and has been on full display since Republicans recaptured the House last November and displayed their divisions by taking 15 ballots to elect a speaker.

It transformed the GOP from a party pushing conservative alternatives to the Democrats’ liberal policies — as it did during Newt Gingrich’s speakership — to one with many members seeking to dismantle parts of the government and rejecting a firm stance abroad.

That attitude is evident in both the increasing number of GOP House members seeking massive cuts in federal programs and the way the party’s presidential candidates are advocating increasingly sweeping measures to dismantle or defund several federal agencies.

But an underlying impetus is the fact that many Republican voters want their representatives to stick to their principles, rather than follow the traditional legislative practice of seeking compromises.

Multiple polls over the past decade have shown the sharp contrast between the attitudes of Democrat voters, most of whom favor compromise, and Republicans — especially the most conservative ones — who prefer their officeholders to resist it.

The tea party movement arose as a reaction not only to President Barack Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act but to deficit spending by the prior George W. Bush Republican administration on the Iraq war and domestic programs like the Medicare prescription drug benefit and the 2008 bank bailout.

Its energy helped the GOP regain the House in 2010 but victory brought a number of anti-government radicals who formed the House Freedom Caucus and hamstrung Boehner on issues like immigration.

A related factor has been the GOP’s policy, instituted under Speaker Dennis Hastert, of only considering measures backed by a majority of their majority, giving a minority of House members what amounts to a veto power.

Trump’s takeover of the GOP provided executive branch sanction of their tactics and his threats drove out of Congress such independent-minded Republicans as Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake who epitomized the traditional political give-and-take that made government work.

The party’s uncompromising attitude has led to two major government shutdowns in the past decade. The first was the futile 2013 effort to stop the implementation of Obamacare. The rebels halted the federal government for 17 days.

The second was precipitated by Trump’s demands in the closing days of 2018 that lawmakers fund the controversial wall he was trying to build to limit illegal immigration on the Southern border. It lasted a record 35 days until Trump backed down.

That kind of a shutdown was avoided by McCarthy’s decision to ignore the party’s right wing and work with the Democrats to reach agreements last May over the debt ceiling and last weekend over federal spending.

The May agreement was itself a compromise in which Democrats agreed to curb domestic discretionary spending and was designed to prevent an impasse this fall.

The GOP’s right wing opposed the deal as making insufficient spending cuts, though two-thirds of House Republicans joined most Democrats in passing it.

When the far-right faction renewed its efforts to force additional cuts in the appropriations bills that provide the actual funding, McCarthy abandoned the bipartisan deal with Biden and caved to its demands.

Then, last Saturday, facing a government shutdown for which he feared Republicans would be blamed, the speaker abruptly changed course again, proposing a simple extension of government spending authority for 45 days that attracted all Democrats and a majority of Republicans.

However, 90 GOP lawmakers voted against it, and the speaker’s reversal ensured his right-wing critics would seek to pursue their threats to force a vote on removing him.

He might have survived, had he not angered the Democrats who had just helped him, accusing them on CBS’ Face the Nation of being “willing to let government shut down, for our military not to be paid.” As a result, they voted unanimously against him Tuesday.

Still, the GOP speaker was really the victim of larger forces with which the next Republican speaker will have to deal.

Whoever it is won’t have much time to reconcile the competing GOP factions, since government spending authority will run out again on Nov. 17, right before Thanksgiving.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.