It was clear even before the midterms that 2023 would feature a divided Congress in America. But in the weeks since the election, the split between Democrats and Republicans seems to be taking a back seat to the fractures within the GOP.
The chaos that’s engulfed congressional Republicans is truly impressive in its scope. There are presently divisions within the House Republican caucus, between Republicans in the House and Senate, and even inside the normally staid Senate Republican caucus. And none of this internecine conflict appears likely to be resolved soon, much to the schadenfreude of Democratic colleagues.
Let’s start with the House, which in theory should represent the GOP vanguard for the next two years. Starting next week, House Republicans will have a majority for the first time since 2018 — but how they’ll spend the first few days with that majority is still anyone’s guess. The rift over House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s ascension to speaker is still ongoing, with the same holdouts promising to block him from obtaining the gavel.
The speaker’s contest has divided the MAGA wing of the caucus, as some former bomb-throwers prepare to settle into the new establishment. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of five Republicans who has vowed not to support McCarthy’s bid no matter what, has urged former Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, to throw his hat in the speakership ring. But Jordan has already signaled he’s fine with McCarthy, having locked up his role as incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
As my colleague Zeeshan Aleem noted, McCarthy’s candidacy has also driven a wedge between Reps. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. The latter is enthusiastically backing McCarthy in a clear case of congressional backscratching. Greene gets to use her leverage to extract concessions from McCarthy while still looking like a team player; McCarthy gets her fundraising skills and MAGA bona fides. Boebert has said she’ll throw her lot in with the “Never Kevin” absent sharper curtailing of the speaker’s power.
Across the Rotunda in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is facing the most extended pushback to his leadership since he first took over in 2006. A lot of the griping from his caucus is political posturing from the hardcore conservative wing, but some of it is annoyance over his willingness to let President Joe Biden rack up legislative victories. Over the last two years, McConnell has stood aside as a number of bipartisan deals came together thanks in large part to Senate moderates, a reversal from his previous “block any Democratic wins, period” strategy during the Obama administration.
Currently, McConnell is taking heat for supporting last week’s passage of a $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package to fund the federal government through the end of this fiscal year in October. Some GOP senators, including Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, wanted instead to force Congress to pass a short-term funding bill, and re-negotiate next year with a flipped House. Indeed, Lee nearly succeeded in scuttling the omnibus with an immigration amendment, but the party’s leadership worked out a deal at the last minute. Instead, 18 Senate Republicans wound up voting for the omnibus, giving it a firm bipartisan backing.
“Our party leadership turned on Republican voters, turned on the Republican base, turned on most Republican senators,” Lee declared during a radio interview on Sunday. “It has happened before, but this is one too many times. For me, this is the final straw.”
The omnibus bill also opened up yet another rift, this one between House and Senate Republicans. Ahead of the vote, House Republicans told their Senate counterparts that any legislation they champion will be dead in the water (in the House) should they vote for the omnibus. McCarthy himself wound up endorsing that pledge, which was then repeated with an even more explicit threat. “Kill this terrible bill or there is no point in pretending we are a united party, and we must prepare for a new political reality,” read a letter to the Senate GOP that 31 House Republicans — more than enough to tank a party-line vote — signed.
Senate Republicans dismissed the House’s warning as “chest thumping and immaturity.” And again, sorry for the spoiler, but the bill passed anyway. Whether that chest-thumping animus will dissipate before the new Congress is seated is a more open-ended question.
And this doesn’t even touch on the whole George Santos affair and how that will play out in the House, or the rancor that the 2024 GOP primaries are sure to inflame — especially among would-be contenders in the Senate.
There’s silver lining in this mess, depending on your preferred side of the aisle. For Republicans, the good news is that nobody expected any sort of policy or legislative breakthroughs in the 118th Congress, so the in-fighting won’t derail anything substantive. But Democrats must feel good knowing that not only is the GOP split over policy, it’s also failing at what is normally the party’s bread and butter: political theater. And GOP members loudly and publicly attacking each other instead of President Biden is probably the closest thing to a win Democrats can hope for while the House remains out of their hands.