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Surprise failure makes matters even worse for GOP’s McCarthy

The fact that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy failed again is a problem. The fact that he was surprised by his failure makes the problem much worse.


House Republican leaders originally planned to advance a defense spending bill last week, only to discover that too many of their own members opposed the party’s plan, causing the leadership to pull the legislation. It was, by any fair measure, embarrassing for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his team.

But the California Republican and his leadership team got together, held several meetings, came up with a new plan, and brought the measure to the House floor on Tuesday. It failed, adding to McCarthy’s intensifying troubles.

Determined to overcome the setbacks, the House speaker went back to work, held more meetings, and twisted more arms. As of 24 hours ago, McCarthy, confident that he’d put in the necessary work and secured the necessary support, was optimistic that he wouldn’t fail again. As the legislative day got underway, The Washington Post reported, “House Republicans on Thursday are expected to advance a Department of Defense appropriations bill after successfully appeasing some hard-right lawmakers.”

A few hours later, the bill failed again. A Politico report added some behind-the-scene details that stood out:

[On Wednesday], Republicans left a closed-door conference meeting confident they had the votes to move the defense bill after Reps. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) and Ken Buck (R-Colo.) told leadership that they would flip their votes on advancing the defense bill, allowing it to move to a full passage vote after helping to block it earlier this week. But Republicans ran back into trouble when Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Eli Crane (R-Ariz.), who had both voted for the rule earlier this week, flipped on Thursday and opposed it.

It’s a basic element of Congress 101: Good House speakers avoid surprises. They craft a strategy, formulate a plan, listen to members, count heads, and bring measures to the floor when they’re ready to pass. They know what’s going to happen because they’re running the show.

These steps might very well seem obvious, but this week served as a timely reminder that McCarthy still struggles with this straightforward process.

Indeed, the fact that the House speaker was caught off guard Thursday strikes me as one of the most significant dimensions to the larger story. Much of the commentary this week has focused on the GOP’s divisions, fueled by radicals at odds with their leaders. By this reasoning, McCarthy only deserves part of the blame — because it’s not his fault that the extremists in his conference are eager to engage in ridiculous antics.

The Republican leader was eager to push this line as the legislative day wrapped up. “This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down,” McCarthy told reporters. “That doesn’t work.”

There’s at least some truth to that — though I’d take issue with the idea that this is “new” — but the House speaker’s effort to avoid responsibility has its limits.

McCarthy was the one who thought he had the votes. McCarthy was the one who brought the bill to the floor, indifferent to the fact that it wouldn’t pass the Senate even if it managed to clear the House. McCarthy was the one who didn’t know he didn’t have the votes.

This, as much as anything else, raises questions about the GOP leader's competence.

Exactly 10 years ago this month, as House Republicans pushed the nation closer to a government shutdown, then-Speaker John Boehner struggled mightily to convince his members to act responsibly. I wrote at the time that the Ohio Republican had effectively become a “speaker in name only.”

A decade later, the “SINO” label has returned. As a Semafor report explained, “There’s been rampant speculation about whether hardline Republicans will eventually try to oust McCarthy from his job, especially after Rep. Matt Gaetz, his most vocal antagonist, left a copy of a motion to vacate sitting in a bathroom this week. But even though he’s still holding the gavel for now, McCarthy already feels a bit like a speaker in name only.”