Jonathan Bernstein, Tribune News Service
House Freedom Caucus Republicans have temporarily halted their blockade of the House floor, ending for now a nearly weeklong shutdown of business in the chamber. The small group of rebels was pledging to block all significant legislation from passing until Speaker Kevin McCarthy agreed to their demands.
The group is upset that McCarthy compromised in the debt-limit deal, and more broadly with their party’s leadership — because that’s the whole point of the Freedom Caucus, to claim that they alone are true conservatives and everyone else are RINOs (Republicans in name only) who sell out the party.
Indeed, it was clear from the start that Freedom Caucus members would oppose whatever deal McCarthy struck to kept the government from defaulting on its debt. The big question was whether McCarthy would accept moving forward without their support and whether a sufficient number of House Republicans would back him with their votes against claims of selling out. That McCarthy and a majority of the Republican conference did so is very much to their credit.
But the fight isn’t over. This is more like a cease-fire for negotiations that could still go wrong. The most likely outcome will be some form of muddling through. Even if they manage to negotiate a deal, it’s unlikely to settle anything for the long term. The slim Republican majority will continue to be semi-functional — able to pass some messaging bills, and sometimes cut deals with the Democratic-majority Senate and President Joe Biden, but always close to another blow-up. The continued disputes will at some point likely end McCarthy’s House career just as similar dynamics ended the careers of several previous Republican House leaders.
We’re not quite a quarter of the way through the Republicans’ two-year majority and they’ve already lost two weeks to infighting, with more likely to come. Rapidly cycling through party leaders, with potentially strong candidates scared away because they realise compromise could cost them their jobs, is hardly a way to produce a talented group. It’s a situation that’s produced government shutdowns and debt-limit crises and undermines the party’s negotiating position with the Senate and the president. But it’s possible that this time will be different and the reopened negotiations between the radicals and McCarthy could fail to find common ground. Here are some of the possibilities that could produce: The Radicals Win: We know that mainstream conservatives and the handful of relatively moderate conservatives have been wary of taking on their loudest and most extreme colleagues. It’s possible that could be institutionalised further, giving the radicals complete control. More likely, it would further the gains they made in January, when two House Freedom Caucus members and one extremely conservative Republican were added to the House Rules Committee. During the debt limit talks, Freedom Caucus (and Rules Committee) member Chip Roy of Texas claimed that in their January deal McCarthy had promised him a veto over House consideration of every bill. If that was enforced, it would give Roy and his group virtual control of the House agenda.
Mainstream Revenge: For years, the extremists have punched above their weight in the House conference. But they don’t really want to govern because governing requires cutting deals and compromising, which they consider unprincipled. That’s worked for them up to this point because mainstream conservatives are terrified of being labeled as RINOs and drawing purist primary challengers. But part of the deal has been that the radicals have been willing to lose. If they really give McCarthy an ultimatum, it’s at least possible that he’ll stand up to them, backed by a large majority of House Republicans, and that the radicals will surrender and be significantly damaged, perhaps even losing their Rules Committee seats. Likely? No. But it is one possible resolution.
Republican Crack-Up: What if neither side is willing to give in? It is possible — again, unlikely, but possible — that it produces a serious fracture in the party, with some group walking out and caucusing as a separate party. In that three-party (or more) scenario, no one party would have the votes to elect a speaker and organise the House. The outcome could be a coalition of the middle, with mainstream Democrats and Republicans sharing House leadership. The coalition could be Democrats and a handful of relatively moderate Republicans, or mainstream Republicans along with a handful of relatively moderate Democrats. None of these coalitions are particularly sensible in an era of strong partisanship and none would likely be stable long-term, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely impossible.
House Reform: The House of Representatives has fluctuated between eras of strong centralisation with strong speakers at the top of a (mostly party-organised) hierarchy, as has been the case since the 1970s, and eras of decentralisation with autonomous committees (often bipartisan) doing whatever they like, as was the case in the middle of the 20th century. Perhaps one way out of Republican dysfunction is to just reduce the need for the party to coordinate when it’s in the majority — by changing rules and procedures to allow committees to do whatever they want, even if the majority of the majority party disagrees. That would be a massive change in the way that the House works and the most conservative Republicans might not like the results since less conservative committee chairs could bottle up their favorite bills. The results, overall and in each individual committee, would be hard to predict either in the remainder of this Congress or over a longer term.
Again, by far the most likely outcome is muddling through, with Republican infighting flaring up repeatedly with all sorts of unfortunate consequences for themselves and the governing process as long as they keep their House majority — including perhaps a government shutdown this fall. One thing for sure, this group of Republicans is not well-suited to holding a very narrow majority.
To be sure: That’s two weeks of the House floor being deadlocked, which doesn’t necessarily shut down committee actions and other important processes with the chamber. However, with the party leadership focused first on speaker elections in January and then on finding a way to break the current impasse, it’s not as if they’re going to be very productive on other matters.
House Freedom Caucus member Matt Gaetz explained that the deal between McCarthy and the radicals “has to be renegotiated in a way so that what happened on the settlement vote would never happen again, where house conservatives would be left as the less desirable coalition partner than Democrats.” How exactly that produces a bill that could pass the Democratic-majority Senate and be signed by Joe Biden is, I guess, a mystery Gaetz isn’t interested in solving.
House Freedom Caucus radicals have at times said that they wanted to reduce the party’s power, but it’s not clear whether they actually want to increase the influence of individual members or if they just want the same amount of centralisation — just with themselves in charge.
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