February 6, 2023


As Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become speaker stretched into another day, the sharp divisions on display among House Republicans have made one thing clear: This standoff is about much more than just Kevin McCarthy. 

The California Republican, of course, is a big part of it. His decision to press forward, despite lacking the votes to secure the gavel, has made the first 48 hours of the 118th Congress among the most chaotic in modern history. Twenty Republicans have rejected his candidacy, despite promised concessions – essentially paralyzing the House, which has been unable even to swear in new members.

Why We Wrote This

The chaotic speakership election offers a mirror into the GOP’s ability to bridge its own increasingly sharp divisions. And, for whoever takes up the gavel, what managing the 118th Congress might be like.

The messy game of political chicken offers a window into the internal dynamics currently roiling the Republican Party. Following a disappointing midterm election, Republicans are deeply, publicly divided over their own identity and what they actually hope to accomplish in governing. Whoever wins the gavel will face the unenviable task of trying to hold together a party that has only cleaved further apart over the past decade.

The chaos of Republicans’ first two days in the House majority is really a battle over which faction will rule their future. And some members say the prolonged speakership fight has already hurt the next leader – and the party. 

“These shenanigans that they have pulled have certainly weakened us,” says Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas. “That seems obvious.”

As Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become speaker stretched into another day with no resolution in sight, the sharp divisions and general dysfunction on display among House Republicans have made one thing clear: This standoff is about much more than just Kevin McCarthy. 

The California Republican, of course, is a big part of it. His decision to press forward with his speaker bid, despite lacking the needed votes to secure the gavel, has made the first 48 hours of the 118th Congress among the most chaotic in modern history. Twenty Republicans have rejected his candidacy, despite various promised concessions – essentially paralyzing the House, which has been unable even to swear in new members, let alone move on to things like committee assignments and legislative business. 

But the messy game of political chicken is also a tidy window into the internal dynamics currently roiling the Republican Party. Following a disappointing midterm election, Republicans are deeply, publicly divided over their own identity, the possible return of former President Donald Trump, and what they actually hope to accomplish in governing. Whoever wins the gavel at this point, whether it be Mr. McCarthy or someone more palatable to his far-right Freedom Caucus detractors, will face the unenviable task of trying to hold together a party that has only cleaved further apart over the past decade. 

Why We Wrote This

The chaotic speakership election offers a mirror into the GOP’s ability to bridge its own increasingly sharp divisions. And, for whoever takes up the gavel, what managing the 118th Congress might be like.

In many ways, the seeds of this week’s drama were planted years ago. Mr. McCarthy’s Republican predecessors, former Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, faced similar pushback from conservative lawmakers who wanted to fight anything that felt like “traditional Washington” – including their own leaders. “What they’re really interested in is chaos,” Mr. Boehner wrote in his memoir after leaving Congress. “They want to throw sand in the gears of the hated federal government until it fails and they’ve finally proved that it’s beyond saving.”

Those divisions took a new shape during the Trump years, as the polarizing president drove some Republicans out of the party while others subsumed their differences for the sake of unity. But the current speaker standoff represents more than the return of an old itch: All but three of the 20 McCarthy opponents were elected during or after the Trump presidency. Indeed, the chaos of Republicans’ first two days in the House majority is really a battle over which faction will rule their future. 





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