Like horror-movie victims transfixed dead in their tracks as the avenging demon approaches, the GOP caucuses in both chambers of Congress appear to be staying the course. As the evidence continues mounting that the GOP’s status-quo arrangements are a prescription for doom, the party held its nominations for leadership Tuesday afternoon. To put things in the suitably bloodless prose of Hill gamesmanship: Both Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell survived test votes of their GOP leadership perches, with McCarthy on track to serve as speaker of the House, and McConnell officially poised to resume his present role as Senate minority leader.
But the appearance of any continuity is a rapidly fading mirage for today’s Republican Party. Still reeling from a midterm election cycle where they were banking on winning comfortable control of the House and Senate alike, the GOP’s congressional brain trust faces a distinctly chastened future over the next two years. The composition of the Senate is still technically unresolved, pending the outcome of the December 6 runoff vote for Georgia’s Senate seat, but Democrats have already claimed a majority there. That means that McConnell will be largely unable to mount resistance to a slew of federal judicial nominees that the Biden White House hopes to move through the chamber, and will be taking legislative cues from the House, where McCarthy will preside over a vanishingly thin majority of between one and six seats.
Which is to say that legislative activity will largely be DOA on McCarthy’s watch. As a leader, the representative of California’s 22nd district boasts almost none of the discipline and procedural sangfroid of McConnell’s run as Senate power broker. “He’ll be on a tight leash with a choke collar,” says longtime Congress follower Norman Ornstein, emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. And former president Donald Trump—who just announced his presidential candidacy for 2024—still looms large over the scrum for power in the House. “There’s still part of the party that wants to push through with Trumpism—arguing that Trumpism hasn’t really been tried yet,” says Geoffrey Kabaservice, vice president of political studies at the Niskansen Center.
That potentially destructive dynamic is already front and center in the House, even though McCarthy won an early nomination ballot in Tuesday’s closed-door session of the House GOP caucus, with Arizona Representative Andy Biggs, former chairman of the House’s hard-right Freedom Caucus, drawing some two dozen votes in a challenge bid. The Freedom Caucus has also floated a series of prospective rule changes that would significantly hem in McCarthy’s discretionary rule as speaker—and bind him tightly to the Freedom Caucus faction as he seeks to achieve some semblance of working order in his restive, Trumpified caucus. The proposed changes include a Freedom Caucus role in approving the actions of the influential rules committee, and endorsement of pending legislation by the entire Republican conference prior to a floor vote. And the whinging doesn’t stop there: The Freedom Caucusers also propose an end to consideration of pending legislation if spending bills aren’t approved by August 1—a particularly bizarre stipulation, since it rests largely on the actions of the Senate, which isn’t under GOP control.
But as always, actual governing is not the point in such ideological posturing. “Even if you eliminate Trump, Trumpism is alive and well,” Ornstein says. “Two-thirds of McCarthy’s caucus are election-denying, bomb-throwing maniacs. A lot of them are ignorant about the fundamentals of how Congress works, and a lot of them would just as soon destroy it.” With McCarthy in notional charge of the House—and with any breakaway faction of half a dozen or so lawmakers ready to torpedo any legislative movement in no time flat—McCarthy’s long-coveted leadership post promises to be less a monument to his world-shaping ambitions and something much more like a medieval torture device.
As for McConnell, he handily won a leadership challenge from Florida Senator Rick Scott, who as the head of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee was doubtless eager to shift blame for the midterms debacle over to McConnell. But McConnell will have something of the opposite problem as minority leader in Chuck Schumer’s Senate: He knows all about manufacturing obstructions to Democratic legislative initiatives, but he could find himself in the awkward position of having to muster support for an odd bill or two. “What are we going to get if McConnell, in his pragmatic approach to politics, decides at the least that there’s something the Republicans need to do in terms of working with Biden and the Democrats, on the upcoming debt ceiling vote, or even aid to Ukraine?” Ornstein asks.
That scenario is not as unthinkable as it would have been had the midterms broken decisively for the GOP. As matters stand, last week’s balloting marks the third straight election cycle in which voters have repudiated a hard-core Trumpian agenda, starting with the 2018 blue wave that delivered the House to the Democrats; at this point, it’s reasonable to infer that the electorate is growing weary of election lies and culture-war-mongering, and might like to see some actual legislating for a change. Navigating the legislative process seems both a baseline you-had-one-job demand for the incoming class of Republican lawmakers, but it should also deliver political dividends in an increasingly Trump-averse electoral climate. “It’s a way of showing that you can actually function,” Kabaservice says. “I think both center left and the center right have a powerful argument coming out of this election. Extremists don’t—they think they can just wave a wand and transform everything.”
That prospect doesn’t exactly play to the strengths of McConnell, as a career obstructionist. “You have to remember that McConnell’s instincts on this front precede Trump,” says ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis, author of The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell. “He can always proceed with obstructionism—that was the whole strategy to defeat the Obama agenda in Congress, and it was shown to work.” To the extent that the new GOP caucus in Congress might be experimenting with product differentiation from the Trump brand, that’s an additional stretch for McConnell, since for all his professed personal distaste for the 45th president, he launched the political world that produced the Trump movement. “How Mitch created Trump, it’s a three-part thing,” MacGillis says. “Going back furthest, you have the money-in-politics thing—guarding that flow of massive money so fiercely, which helps create the cynicism and resentment that bred Trump. Second, McConnell helped create the Tea Party with all the obstructionism in 2009—that complete obstructionism when the nation was in crisis, helped created that Tea Party resentment, which then directly feeds into the Trump movement. And third, the incredible Merrick Garland gambit”—fabricating an entirely bogus procedural argument to shut down the appointment hearings for the Supreme Court nominee Obama had tapped to replace Antonin Scalia—“which literally furnished the party’s rationale to embrace Trump.”
Given this track record, and the GOP’s manifest predilection for inertia in leadership, inertia in governing remains the likeliest specter ahead. That means, in turn, that the present lame duck session of Congress poses some urgent dilemmas for the incumbent Democratic leadership. “I see a couple big questions here,” Ornstein says. One, will Democrats be able to do some things in the lame duck to head all this off—putting together votes on the debt ceiling and appropriations? And two, will the investigations upon investigations—witch hunts upon witch hunts—that the Republicans have been planning really take hold? Will they backfire, or will they tie up the administration enough to block everything? You can do a lot to paralyze the White House with investigations.”
It scarcely inspires confidence that McCarthy will ultimately be the person entrusted with such judgments. “I have never, in more than 50 years being immersed in this process, encountered a weaker, more spineless, more morally corrupt leader in Congress than Kevin McCarthy,” Ornstein says. Given that character profile, it just might be the case that the more chaos McCarthy has to contend with, the better off the country at large will be. “The forming of the firing squad in circular fashion—the thing that’s long been the franchise with the Democrats—might work to our advantage here,” Ornstein says. “That may create enough of a distraction and weaken the party further.” And as an added bonus, it will almost certainly drive McConnell crazy.