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The House GOP’s Immaturity Caucus

January 12, 2023
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Kevin McCarthy’s election as speaker on the 15th ballot early Saturday morning was a spectacle, and his concessions left him weaker than he would have been with unified support. Still, he isn’t the only speaker elected with only 216 votes—two fewer than a majority of a full 435-member House. Nancy Pelosi won re-election in 2021 with 216, too. Nor was this the only multiballot contest for speaker. There have been at least 15 in U.S. history. The last was a nine-ballot cliff-hanger in 1923; the record was set in 1856 at 133 ballots.

Nor does Mr. McCarthy’s lengthy passage to victory guarantee a dysfunctional tenure, as some suggest. Thomas Jefferson also had a tortuous path to the presidency. The 1800 election ended in an Electoral College tie, sending the contest to the House. It met Feb. 11, 1801, to decide who would be president. Six days and 36 ballots later, Jefferson prevailed over his running mate, Aaron Burr, who attempted to grab the White House with support from the Federalist opposition. Jefferson led effectively. So will Mr. McCarthy, though his path is harder. 

The new speaker’s election was opposed in early ballots by 20 of the 222-member House Republican Conference, who were unwilling to accept Mr. McCarthy’s 188-31 win in a secret ballot held by House Republicans in mid-November. The dissenters were composed of two groups with different motivations. 

The Gang of Six—Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Eli Crane (Ariz.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Bob Good (Va.) and Matt Rosendale(Mont.)—aimed to blow up the existing House Republican structure. They didn’t care who was elected in Mr. McCarthy’s place so long as they became celebrities.

These anarchists had no willing and viable alternative, as demonstrated by Mr. Gaetz’s nomination of Donald Trump for speaker. They also believed Mr. McCarthy would cave in. He didn’t. The longer he fought, the more extreme these narcissists appeared. On the final ballot, the Gang of Six still didn’t support Mr. McCarthy. Instead, they answered “present,” reducing the number of votes required to win to 213. 

The remaining 14 dissenters voted for Mr. McCarthy in the end. They had largely held out for rule changes, many of which the GOP conference had already approved in November. Republicans had agreed that the budget would be passed in 12 appropriations bills, not a giant spending omnibus. Members would have 72 hours to review legislation before voting. Bills would be limited to one subject. Still, the 14 rebels wanted stronger assurances and additional, more radical changes—starting with allowing a single representative to “vacate the chair,” a motion to remove the speaker. Once Mr. McCarthy agreed to this and the Group of 14 became more trusting, they started voting for him.

Some changes to reduce the centralized direction of the House and restore power to members could be healthy. But the GOP conference had already approved many of the more reasonable reforms the Group of 14 demanded. The self-styled reformers—about 6% of House Republicans—could have put their other proposals to a vote then too, but they likely knew they didn’t have majority support. Last week, it was clear most GOP members opposed allowing only one member to move to vacate the chair. Most also reject a 10% cut in defense spending, as the dissenters’ budget proposal might require. So the Group of 14 went the antidemocratic route, insisting it was their way or else.

Kevin McCarthy’s election as speaker on the 15th ballot early Saturday morning was a spectacle, and his concessions left him weaker than he would have been with unified support. Still, he isn’t the only speaker elected with only 216 votes—two fewer than a majority of a full 435-member House. Nancy Pelosi won re-election in 2021 with 216, too. Nor was this the only multiballot contest for speaker. There have been at least 15 in U.S. history. The last was a nine-ballot cliff-hanger in 1923; the record was set in 1856 at 133 ballots.

Nor does Mr. McCarthy’s lengthy passage to victory guarantee a dysfunctional tenure, as some suggest. Thomas Jefferson also had a tortuous path to the presidency. The 1800 election ended in an Electoral College tie, sending the contest to the House. It met Feb. 11, 1801, to decide who would be president. Six days and 36 ballots later, Jefferson prevailed over his running mate, Aaron Burr, who attempted to grab the White House with support from the Federalist opposition. Jefferson led effectively. So will Mr. McCarthy, though his path is harder. 

The new speaker’s election was opposed in early ballots by 20 of the 222-member House Republican Conference, who were unwilling to accept Mr. McCarthy’s 188-31 win in a secret ballot held by House Republicans in mid-November. The dissenters were composed of two groups with different motivations. 

Read More at the WSJ 

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