The historically long process to choose a new U.S. House speaker highlights the power of a few insurgents to affect politics at the highest level.
Twenty Republicans, with at least six of them hardened in their positions, denied California Republican Kevin McCarthy the speakership for 14 rounds of voting. That’s the most time it’s taken to elect a House speaker since 1923, when Massachusetts Republican Frederick Gillett won on the ninth ballot. In 1855, Nathaniel Banks, a member of the American Party, was elected speaker after a record 133 votes.
Few speaker contests have been as dramatic as McCarthy’s odyssey.
The race ultimately ended Friday night when Chip Roy of Austin, Michael Cloud of Victoria and newly elected Keith Self of McKinney joined other Republicans in dropping their opposition to McCarthy. But four Republicans voted against McCarthy and two — Florida’s Matt Gaetz and Colorado’s Lauren Boebert — voted present. That denied McCarthy the speakership and continued the GOP’s embarrassing family feud.
But then McCarthy worked a deal with Gaetz and won speakership on the 15th vote. According to media reports, former President Donald Trump called into the House chamber to convince anti-McCarthy Republicans to give up the stalemate.
“I’ll be honest. It’s not how I had planned,” McCarthy said during his acceptance speech.
Polarization empowers the fringe
How did a small cadre of insurgent Republicans bring the House to a standstill?
The inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together has empowered minority factions in both parties. A bipartisan approach could have resulted in McCarthy winning the speaker’s race in short order.
But Democrats held the line, using their 212 votes to back New York’s Hakeem Jeffries. He’s now the new House minority leader.
McCarthy and his allies didn’t ask Democrats for help. That’s because consorting with Democrats would put a lawmaker in bad stead with grassroots Republicans who dominate the GOP primary process. The threat of being ousted from office for dealing with a member of the other party is real, particularly in GOP circles.
McCarthy had to win the speaker’s race within his own caucus, and that gave each GOP member greater clout. That influence will continue as the 2024 elections loom and create more headaches for Republicans who want to focus on their conservative message, instead of infighting and tough general elections with insurgents as their party’s standard bearers.
Democrats had a similar problem, but former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was able to keep her caucus unified. Remember noise from progressives about not supporting President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan until a more expansive, progressive companion piece of legislation was approved? That insurgency never occurred.
Draining the swamp?
Though small, the anti-McCarthy forces got big concessions.
Expect small minorities inside the GOP caucus to heavily influence House legislation and potential investigations, and McCarthy could be in a weaker position than former speakers.
According to reports, the new speaker has agreed to allow any single member of the House to call for a vote to oust the speaker. He also conceded that his leadership political action committee would stay out of GOP primary contests, something insurgents have complained about in the past.
McCarthy’s team will allow votes on a number of insurgent wish list items, including term limits and a balanced budget amendment. Such proposals are unlikely to get through the House. McCarthy also promised that any debt ceiling hike would come with spending cuts.
Insurgents are expected to get key posts on several powerful committees.
For many Americans who want to change the swampy politics of Washington, the House disruption was American democracy in action.
After the tough fight, it was compelling to watch Jeffries present the gavel to McCarthy.
Insurgents influential in Texas
Even outside of Washington, the power of hard-core conservatives can be felt.
In 2021 the Texas Legislature approved laws that appeared to mollify Trump supporters, including tighter controls of the mail-in ballot process, policies aimed at curbing social media censorship and allowing residents to carry guns without a permit.
Beaumont Republican Dade Phelan, the presumptive Texas House speaker, has had to stand up to activists who want him to deny Democrats chairmanships on House committees.
Republican speakers in the Texas House have won with support from Democrats.
The polarization of the political parties will continue because the 2021 redrawing of congressional and Texas legislative boundaries protected Democratic and Republican incumbents. That means the political fringe will have greater influence in primaries. Since Republicans control the state, their insurgents are as powerful as ever.
The success of the Republican House disrupters will embolden insurgents across the country to continue their fight against the establishment. That could cause problems for Republicans, because insurgent candidates typically don’t win statewide or swing-district races.
Consider the 2022 midterm elections. Republicans could have had a greater majority in the House, and maybe won the Senate, if they hadn’t had election deniers and other problematic candidates who lost general election races that traditional Republicans would have won.
The stakes are just as high in 2024, with Trump mounting another run for the White House.
Can the gridlock in Washington ease?
There are some issues, like abortion and immigration, on which Democrats and Republicans will always be at loggerheads.
But there’s so much more on the table on which the parties can find common ground, if they tried.
If they don’t make an effort at working together, the disrupters who rely on polarization will thrive.
McCarthy has a fresh start. Let’s see how he handles it.
This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas- at the bottom.