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McCarthy faces a pivotal moment

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — America just experienced the inevitable outcome of what midterm election voters delivered: an inoperable Republican House majority rocked by burn-it-down hardliners, a weak speaker and chaos that makes strong governance impossible.

Dramatic brinkmanship that narrowly averted a government shutdown on Saturday only opened new and even more turbulent chapters in a divided Washington.

The showdown between Kevin McCarthy and hardline Republicans brought the speaker to a pivotal moment after a series of previous efforts to find sufficient GOP votes failed. McCarthy stared down extremists and was forced to use Democratic votes to advance a bill to keep the government open for 45 days, a move that will put the job he craved for years on the line this week.

The root cause of McCarthy’s problem is that he leads a conference that is not a coherent political force, which means he will never be able to guarantee the necessary 218 votes to pass bills. On one side is a group of 20 or so Republican flamethrowers, many of whom, like Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, practice the stunt politics and chaos of ex-President Donald Trump, who was cheering on a shutdown from the sidelines. The other flank of the most conservative House GOP conference includes more moderate Republicans. Their victories in last year’s midterms in districts President Joe Biden won two years earlier handed McCarthy the gavel and their fate will decide whether the GOP keeps it after 2024.

McCarthy’s tortuous efforts to wield power are also hampered by spending hawks and ultra conservatives from heavily pro-Trump districts whose power is only endangered by even more extreme primary opponents and whose voters sent them to Washington to cause as much trouble as possible.

These irreconcilable political realities are exacerbated by the tricky balance of power that emerged after the midterm elections, when disconsolate voters soured on Biden’s presidency and the Democratic monopoly on power, but balked at handing unfettered control of the country to the wrecking ball of Trump’s Republican Party. The collapse of the expected “red wave” in November 2022 meant that McCarthy was left with a minuscule House majority. He can only lose four members and pass a bill on a party-line vote. That has given hardliners enormous power – and they extracted multiple concessions in return for his election as speaker. During 15 rounds of voting in January, McCarthy caved to the right multiple times, including over a poison-pill undertaking that a single member can call a vote to topple him as speaker, as Gaetz is vowing to do this week.

How deep political divides make Washington unmanageable

The situation is further complicated by the fact that even if McCarthy unites his conference behind a measure, it is almost certain to fail in a Democratic-run Senate and with Biden in the White House. This is the dynamic that led McCarthy on Saturday to a desperate choice that threatens his career.

He could have sided with the hardliners, who demanded massive spending cuts far beyond a deal the speaker did with Biden earlier this year to avoid a disastrous debt default that would have rocked the global economy. But such a measure would die in the Senate and would have ensured a government shutdown. The spectacle of troops going unpaid and vital public services descending into chaos could have exposed Republicans to a furious backlash and possibly doomed the moderates on whom the GOP majority rests next year. So McCarthy turned his back on the far right and advanced a simpler measure to keep the government open temporarily. But his punt only postponed the issue until mid-November.

Given the political realities, there is little reason to expect the ungoverned chaos in the House will ease before the 2024 election, especially with Trump, the GOP front-runner, goading his allies in the House. And while dysfunction may be an end in itself for some anti-government conservatives and pro-Trump nihilists, the basic functions of the country are sure to face continued disruption.

The sense of unprecedented forces tearing at the American political system will be exacerbated on Monday when the 2024 presidential race takes another lurch into the unknown. Trump is has said he will show up in a courtroom in New York for a civil fraud trial that seriously threatens his business empire. The appearance – which Trump is certain to spin into a spectacle to further his main campaign narrative, namely that he’s the victim of unwarranted political persecution – will take place after a judge last week found Trump and his adult sons liable for fraud. The anticipated appearance, on which Trump is already fundraising, will foreshadow the most unusual campaign season in history. The former president is expected to spend days in court next year during several of his four criminal trials, including over his attempts to steal the 2020 presidential election.

McCarthy’s battle for survival provokes a Democratic dilemma

The most immediate result of McCarthy’s clash with his far-right wingers is that he must fight to keep his job. Gaetz said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that he would this week attempt to oust the speaker.

The Florida lawmaker is expected to use a device known as the motion to vacate the speaker’s chair to force a vote on McCarthy’s future. “Speaker McCarthy made an agreement with House conservatives in January and since then he’s been in brazen, repeated material breach of that agreement,” Gaetz told Jake Tapper. “This agreement that he made with Democrats to really blow past a lot of the spending guardrails we set up is a last straw.” Gaetz added: “I think we need to rip off the Band-Aid. I think we need to move on with new leadership that will be trustworthy.”

McCarthy is defiant. He told Gaetz to “bring it on” in an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” And he accused the firebrand Florida congressman of sabotaging some of the GOP’s core goals in the flurry of attempted legislating in the shutdown drama. “I’ll survive. You know, this is personal with Matt. Matt voted against the most conservative ability to protect our border, secure our border. He’s more interested in securing TV interviews than doing something.”

“Let’s get over with it and let’s start governing.”

A vote on McCarthy’s future will force GOP rebels to make their own difficult decisions about whether to bring down the speaker. Currently, there is no standout candidate to replace McCarthy who is guaranteed to be any more successful in advancing far-right goals through a divided Washington. But at the same time, the chances of McCarthy getting almost all Republicans to vote for him this week seem remote when he couldn’t manufacture that level of support on his government spending plan. His struggles to muster a majority were laid bare last month when he twice failed to pass two defense spending bills that are normally among the easiest lifts in Washington.

McCarthy’s plight also presents Democrats with a dilemma and a possible opportunity. One way for McCarthy to survive would be with sufficient Democratic votes to make up for Republican hardliners who oppose his continued speakership. The thought of voting for a pro-Trump partisan – who pledged loyalty to the former president after the US Capitol insurrection in January 2021 and has recently opened an impeachment inquiry into Biden – will be unpalatable for many Democrats.

But there might be a chance to wring concessions from McCarthy in exchange for support – perhaps to bring up a bill for $6 billion of Ukraine aid, which the speaker did not include in the stopgap measure to keep open the government. As ineffective and extreme as he has often been, some Democrats might also view McCarthy, who blinked before throwing the US into a debt default and shutting down the government, as preferable to a more radical alternative.

As Democrats assess the changed circumstances, Minority Whip Katherine Clark told her party’s lawmakers that leadership will hold a caucus meeting to consider options if Gaetz goes ahead with his bid to oust McCarthy. The possibility of Democrats voting to save their enemy might seem remote, but it could be politically appealing to some Democrats facing tough reelection fights. Michigan Rep. Hillary Scholten, a self-described moderate Democrat, said Sunday that while there were some “serious trust issues,” she would take the matter under consideration. “We’re going to need some concrete guidelines in place if he’s going to want Democrats to come to the table and help save his speakership,” Scholten said on “State of the Union.”

But for some Democrats in progressive districts, it could alienate core supporters and even spark a primary challenge.

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told CNN’s Tapper on Sunday that she would be “absolutely” prepared to cast a vote to oust McCarthy, but did not definitively rule out a deal between the speaker and her party to keep him in power, while warning it should give nothing away for “free.”

“He clearly has lost control of his caucus. He has brought the United States and millions of Americans to the brink, waiting until the final hour to keep the government open, and, even then, only issuing a 45-day extension,” she said. “We’re going to be right back in this place in November. And I think that our main priority has to be the American people and what’s going to keep our governance in a cohesive and strong place.”

The possibility of that strong and cohesive governance seems further away this week than before the averted shutdown. Perhaps by facing down his right-wing critics, McCarthy can emerge stronger and forge deals with a Democratic-run Senate that will allow him to plausibly argue to voters in 2024 that he has offered a functional conservative counterbalance to Biden in the White House.

Yet the lesson of the Trump era of Republicanism is that uproar and disruption are never done. They just keep on getting more extreme.

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