Republicans will soon make a decision on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), but Democrats have a choice to make too.
As Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) pushes to depose McCarthy via a motion to vacate, Democrats must ask whether they believe what they say about government shutdowns, default, and disorder in the House or whether they merely want to be in a position to run against those things in 2024.
Whatever disagreements they may have with McCarthy, he has at considerably greater risk to himself than any member of the Democratic leadership team delivered on a debt ceiling deal to avert default and a temporary spending measure to avoid a shutdown.
McCarthy is someone President Joe Biden and Democratic congressional leaders can do business with, especially compared to any likely replacements. That’s precisely what has jeopardized the California Republican’s hold on the gavel.
Biden did not mention McCarthy in his remarks about the legislation preventing a government shutdown until he made a reference to the debt ceiling deal that “extreme MAGA Republicans tried to walk away from” and then again to push for more taxpayer dollars for Ukraine.
When asked directly about the fate of McCarthy’s speakership, Biden said, “I don’t have a vote on that matter. I’ll leave that to the leadership of the House and the Senate.”
“It is not up to us to decide. It really isn’t. That is up to the House Democrats and House Republicans more specifically, House Republicans to decide on that,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday.
Asked about whether the White House could truly be neutral if the choice was between McCarthy and “chaos,” Jean-Pierre replied, “You’re right. There is chaos in House Republicans.”
“And so, we’re just not going to get involved,” she concluded. “That is for House Republicans to decide.”
Biden obviously can’t come out and endorse McCarthy. That would only create more problems for a speaker under suspicion of a deal with the Democrats at the expense of conservatives. There is also the whole matter of impeachment drawing a wedge between the two sides.
A small sliver of Democrats may hold the key to whether Gaetz’s gambit succeeds or fails, however. Biden has nevertheless hitched his reelection prospects on what he calls MAGA Republicans, just as he did the Democrats’ congressional ranks in the midterm elections.
The Republican dilemma is clear and long predated McCarthy. How do they live up to commitments to restrain federal spending, made repeatedly if without much specificity to their constituents, while barely controlling one-half of one of the three branches of the federal government amid deep intraparty divisions?
Neither the GOP’s governing class nor its base-friendly conservative activist wing has been able to answer that question. And the populist Right that has been ascendant since the first election of former President Donald Trump may not be interested in the same old limited-government conversation, further complicating matters.
But it is also an open question about whether Democrats believe what they say about institutions, norms, avoiding chaos in government, or risks to the economy in pursuit of political objectives. For all the stern warnings about the need to keep federal agencies open or eschew becoming a deadbeat nation that doesn’t pay its bills, there does seem to be an eagerness to run against these sorts of things next year.
Showdowns with congressional Republicans that made fiscal responsibility look nihilistic and irresponsible helped reelect former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama after much worse midterm election results that Democrats endured under Biden.
Yet some recent polls show the public might apportion the blame more evenly among the parties. Biden’s economic approval ratings are already low, mainly due to the high cost of living. Anything that would lead to higher unemployment or slower gross domestic product growth would make his problems worse as well.
Democrats and Biden do get a vote on McCarthy’s future, even if it will be less consequential than the ones that will be cast by House Republicans.
How they use it will be illustrative of their priorities as well.