US House Speaker’s position will have a significant impact on major issues

William RobertsThursday 23 March 2023

When Kevin McCarthy needed the votes from fellow Republicans to become speaker of the US House of Representatives, he was forced to give up power to a cadre of hard-right legislators to gain their support. His tribulations look set to have longer term implications for US approaches to major issues, including the US response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and financial stability.

In a series of 15 votes taken over several days in January, McCarthy was subjected to a spectacle not seen for 163 years. Repeatedly, he was foiled in his drive to become Speaker as members of his own party extracted ideological concessions. McCarthy conceded seats on key committees, promised holdouts a greater voice in leadership and offered reasonable changes in how the House makes laws.

It wasn’t enough. Consequently, his later concessions involved expanding a committee investigating the ‘weaponization’ and alleged bias of the federal government and backing ‘criminal investigations’ of US President Joe Biden’s administration. He pledged to release 44,000 hours of video of the 6 January insurrection at the Capitol.

To clinch the deal, McCarthy swore not to bring a bill to the House floor raising the US public debt limit without major spending cuts. And, because the holdouts didn’t trust him, McCarthy agreed to resurrect an old parliamentary rule allowing any House member to call for a vote to ‘vacate the chair’, thus removing him as Speaker.

When you’ve got so many people in the ideological extremes, and you’ve got a thin margin in the House, this is the inevitable by-product

Matt Kaiser
Senior Vice-Chair, IBA Criminal Law Committee

McCarthy eventually won the speakership via a 216 to 212 vote with six holdout Republicans voting ‘present’ in the small hours of 7 January. Now, his weakened standing and the rebellion within his own party puts in jeopardy whether the US Treasury will default on its debt as well as the continuity of US support for Ukraine.

‘When you’ve got so many people in the ideological extremes, and you’ve got a thin margin in the House, this is the inevitable by-product’, says Matt Kaiser, Senior Vice-Chair of the IBA Criminal Law Committee and a partner at law firm Kaiser Dillon in Washington, DC.

‘The concessions were historic and really undermined McCarthy’s capacity to govern’, says James Thurber, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and a leading US congressional scholar.

The first major test of McCarthy’s speakership comes as Republicans and President Biden stake out positions on US spending and the debt limit. The statutory federal debt limit of $31.38tn was reached in mid-January. If it’s not lifted by September or October, the US risks defaulting on its outstanding debt payments – a financial disaster.

Members of the House Freedom Caucus such as Representative Lauren Boebert, who were reluctant to back McCarthy for speaker, issued their budget demands in mid-March. Before agreeing to lift the debt limit, they want domestic spending cut to 2019 levels, the revocation of clean energy investments in the Democrats’ climate programme and the dismissal of Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. ‘We’re going to use the tools we fought so hard for at the beginning of this year to Shrink Washington & Save America!’ Boebert posted on social media.

President Biden rolled out his budget on 9 March, proposing to cut federal deficits by raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy while holding the line on both domestic and defence spending. ‘The MAGA [Make America Great Again] Republicans are using the threat of default for the first time in history. It’s risky to America’s health and security. It’s dangerous’, warned Biden in a speech in Philadelphia.

All of this puts McCarthy in the same kind of untenable position that brought down his Republican predecessors, John Boehner and Paul Ryan. When it’s time to hammer out a compromise with Biden and the Senate, McCarthy will struggle. ‘I can't believe that anyone will let us go over the cliff on the debt limit’, Kaiser says. ‘On the other hand, there’s got to be a point at which Biden is going to force the Republicans to blink. It’s like a hostage negotiation.’

One path for resolving the looming crisis would be for McCarthy to put a debt limit bill on the floor that moderate Republicans and Democrats would both vote for. That, however, could spell the end of his speakership, Thurber says.

Meanwhile, tied up in the budget debate is the question of how much aid the US is providing to Ukraine. Congress has agreed $113.4bn for Ukraine since the Russian invasion began. McCarthy and his allies have been sceptical of US support for Ukraine – the Speaker refused an invitation from President Volodymyr Zelensky to visit Kyiv and warned in October that there would be no ‘blank check’ for Ukraine if Republicans won the House. Liberal Democrats have also raised doubts about open-ended support.

Representative Matt Gaetz, who was among those who extracted concessions from McCarthy in January, alongside ten others, has called for an end to US military and financial aid for Ukraine. At the same time, there has been a groundswell of support among other Republicans and Democrats for sending Ukraine the weapons it needs to win quickly, including F-16 fighter jets that Biden has withheld. ‘This conflict must end. And the President must be willing to do what it takes to end it’, said Representative Mike Rogers, Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, at a hearing in late February. ‘Continued reluctance and indecision only empowers Putin.’ The debate will come to a head when Congress acts on supplemental spending legislation for Ukraine later this year.

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