When House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced his resignation earlier this month, the likelihood that his successor would be able to navigate a series of high stakes deadlines looked uncertain at best. Since then, the leadership succession has erupted into full-out chaos.
What was supposed to be a relatively smooth ascension for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has been rocked by his own gaffes, outsider challengers, and the threat of an unprecedented floor fight that could undermine efforts to avoid a government shutdown and a historic default on the national debt before the year’s end.
According to Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the best scenario for lawmakers to avoid a major showdown is for Boehner to push through a debt ceiling vote and if possible — a broader budget package — before retiring.
“If that doesn’t happen, things do change for the worse,” Ornstein said. “To become the speaker, McCarthy is going to have to make a series of concessions to the Freedom Caucus people, and that will make it much more likely that we will get a shutdown and more likely that we will get a breach in the debt ceiling.”
Boehner’s surprise resignation and the turmoil it has created was a rare occurrence on its own, congressional scholars tell TPM. However, exacerbating the drama is that it is comes just as Congress is facing some make-or-break moments on the budget that could send the country into crisis. The leadership shake-up may have averted a shutdown earlier this month, but it did nothing to change the fundamentals that have led to the brinkmanship politics.
“You still have this substantial group of more conservative members who will say that they will refuse to vote for, whether it be a continuing resolution or a debt ceiling and any other must-pass piece of legislation, unless they get something that they want,” Ron Peters, a University of Oklahoma professor of political science who has written a number of books about Congress, said in an interview with TPM.
Already those hardliners, coalesced around the House Freedom Caucus, have made their objections to McCarthy known, announcing that they would support one of his challengers, Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL), in Thursday’s closed-door GOP conference to select a nominee.
“Even if that results in McCarthy still winning, it’s not a good way to start off the speakership, with a bulk of the members willing to vote against you coming from your own party,” said Catholic University political science professor Matthew Green, who has written about the speakership.
What’s waiting for McCarthy on the other side of that election is a Nov. 5 deadline to raise the debt limit followed by a Dec. 11 deadline to fund the government through the 2016 fiscal year. Both issues stand to be complicated by the effort to defund Planned Parenthood and the fight to undo sequestration.
“Any new speaker would like to have some time to establish his or her authority before dealing with crises and unfortunately, whoever is taking over for Boehner is going to have very little time do that,” Green said.
Since announcing his resignation, Boehner has maneuvered to ease the transition for his successor. He has pushed back the elections for the rest of the leadership team to November, which was seen as nod to the hardliners at the expense of Boehner’s own majority whip, Steve Scalise (R-LA). The move may give the conservative wing additional time to mount a challenge to the current slate and get a seat at the leadership table. Including a Freedom Caucus member in the leadership, for example, could potentially help change some of the underlying fundamentals that hamstrung Boehner’s speakership.
“He’s deferred these other elections on the theory that it will give the dissidents more time to see if they can gather voters to knock out one of the other two,” Peters said.
There is also speculation that by scheduling the leadership votes late on the calendar, Boehner can remain in charge if his replacement isn’t immediately elected.
But that doesn’t strengthen the case for McCarthy himself. Doubts about the untested Republican’s abilities were enflamed by McCarthy’s remarks on Fox News that the Benghazi committee had been effective political campaign to take down Hillary Clinton. McCarthy made the remarks when pressed to show how he would fight for conservatives, but they ended up bringing the condemnation of the very rabble rousers he was seeking to woo.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) said McCarthy’s apology “doesn’t fix” the damage it caused, as other Republicans have scurried to defend the committee. It also opened the door for another one of McCarthy’s challengers, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who jumped in after the remark. Like Webster’s, Chaffetz’s campaign is seen as a long-shot, but it has brought about concerns of a protracted fight.
“The more the House stays in chaos, the worse it will be,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) told Politico, arguing that if Chaffetz’s bid prevented McCarthy from getting enough support, it would be a “pretty bad thing.”