It wasn’t supposed to be like this for California Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy. Before the dissipation of the mighty Red Wave by Republicans in the midterm elections, he was a shoo-in for Speaker, with predictions of as many as 60 seats flipped in the House.
Today, that margin is just five seats and it spells big trouble for his ambitions.
That’s because a bloc of five “Never Kevin” far-right Republicans have pledged to vote together as a unit, with an unknown further number of claimed supporters. They have made it clear they will not support McCarthy’s bid and instead have demanded to elect a conservative, along with all manner of rule changes that would increase the bloc’s own power in the House.
This includes reviving a rule that would make it far easier to topple the Speaker at any time, effectively giving them veto power over who holds the gavel.
McCarthy understandably has refused to budge on this question; after all, what good is becoming Speaker if at the first point of disagreement, the extremists can move to vote you out?
And so, in what feels like an increasingly desperate bid to win the support of the far-right, McCarthy has taken to groveling in all manner of unseemly ways, including cozying up to the likes of Republican Representative Majorie Taylor Greene and promising choice committee assignments.
It means kissing Trump’s ring and staying in his good graces, even while rallying more centrist members to his cause. Their support is admittedly less for McCarthy than it is an acknowledgement of the lack of any viable alternative.
Thus was born the cringey “O.K.” button campaign, where moderates have pledged that they are “Only Kevin”—because, well, he’s pretty much also “O.K.” for the job.
McCarthy’s groveling has apparently extended to going along with a broad and unprecedented attack upon his Senate colleagues. As a bipartisan group in the Senate hammers out a gigantic, end-of-year omnibus spending package, the Freedom Caucus and other far-right Representatives are howling mad.
They had fought hard to defeat the bill but didn’t have the votes in Nancy Pelosi’s House, which ends in January. Lacking the votes to stop the bill, they have now resorted to childish threats.
On Monday, they warned in a letter, ultimately signed by 31 of them, that any Republican who votes for the spending bill would never see one of their own bills taken up by the House.
They even took a direct swipe at GOP Senate Minority Leader McConnell:
“We are obliged to inform you that if any omnibus passes in the remaining days of this Congress, we will oppose and whip opposition to any legislative priority of those senators who vote for this bill—including the Republican leader.”
In a tweet, McCarthy endorsed the letter on Tuesday, stating:
“Agreed. Except no need to whip—when I’m Speaker, their bills will be dead on arrival in the House if this nearly $2 [trillion] monstrosity is allowed to move forward.”
It is an unprecedented flex for a leader of a party in one chamber to openly threaten the legislative priorities of the leader of the same party in the other chamber, yet here we are, witnessing McCarthy’s humiliating, performative tantrum.
The stakes are high.
The budget bill includes $45 billion in aid for Ukraine, which if not passed this session may not get through the House in the next, due largely to opposition from a handful of staunch anti-Ukraine funding House members including the Never Kevins.
The bill also contains provisions amending the Electoral Count Act to prevent a repeat of January 6 by making it harder for members of Congress to object to election results and designating state governors as the final word on certification of electors. This was a hard-fought reform that has at long last received broad bipartisan support.
The bill needs to pass before the body breaks for the holidays, but it is currently stalled over a question of immigration reform under Title 42, raised by hard core anti-migrant crusader Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee.
If ultimately passed, the bill will fund the government through September 2023. Kentucky GOP Senator Mitch McConnell, and likely McCarthy at least privately, want the bill to pass now so that the new Congress doesn’t spend its first few months playing hot potato with the budget.
Given the uncertainty over McCarthy’s House leadership bid, having the budget also still unresolved could paralyze the government entirely, leading to shutdowns and chaos.
Of course, this kind of brinksmanship, with government shutdowns and chaos as leverage, is precisely what the Freedom Caucus and the Never Kevins want in order to test their own political strength.
By throwing his lot in with them, at least on paper, McCarthy hopes to keep their crucial support, thus necessitating these embarrassing salvos against his own colleagues.
But few over in the Senate take his threat to blacklist GOP bill supporters very seriously.
Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby—vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the top negotiator on the omnibus bill—said to Axios:
“He’s focused on being Speaker, and if I were in his shoes that’s what I would be focused on, trying to get enough votes."
"But I don't think that intimidates anyone.”
Utah GOP Senator Mitt Romney was less charitable when he said:
“We're enduring the silly season of the campaign."
"[For] most of us that's over after you get elected, but he's running for Speaker of the House, so the silliness is still evident.”