The Ukrainian president received a hero’s welcome. The House Republican leader was a study in discomfiture.
Then there was Kevin McCarthy. He stood at the floor leader’s desk, restlessly playing with the microphone. As Volodymyr Zelensky was about to enter the chamber, McCarthy checked his phone. As the adulation began, McCarthy clapped absently while chatting with Republican whip Steve Scalise (La.).
Zelensky told the rapt chamber that “your money is not charity” but “an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.” Lawmakers rose to applaud. McCarthy, who vows to probe Ukraine’s use of U.S. funds, froze in his chair before eventually lumbering to his feet.
Zelensky urged lawmakers to “ensure that America’s leadership remains solid, bicameral and bipartisan.” McCarthy again rose slowly, then quickly sat back down.
Zelensky called on Americans to “help us bring to justice everyone who started this unprovoked and criminal war.” McCarthy sat out the standing ovation, drumming his fingers.
“Let the world see that the United States are here,” Zelensky urged. McCarthy yawned.
Zelensky presented a Ukrainian flag, signed by warriors on the front, to Vice President Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. McCarthy, sucking on a candy, stood with his hands in his pockets.
McCarthy’s unease was understandable. Zelensky’s joint-session address celebrated U.S. support for Ukraine’s defenses against Russian invaders, and many in McCarthy’s Republican caucus (whose votes McCarthy needs to become speaker) want to cut off U.S. aid. Most GOP lawmakers skipped the speech entirely, and a few in attendance — Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Tim Burchett — sat through it sulking. Other Republicans trashed Zelensky, calling him “the Ukrainian lobbyist” (Rep. Thomas Massie), “the shadow president” (Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene) and a “welfare queen” (Donald Trump Jr.).
But Zelensky’s visit to Capitol Hill celebrated something else, too: a functioning Congress. The address capped an extraordinarily productive “lame-duck” session in which Democrats and a minority of Republicans guaranteed the right to same-sex marriage and reached agreement on a massive $1.66 trillion spending bill that runs the government for the next nine months, provides arms to Ukraine and removes the electoral college ambiguity that Donald Trump used to foment the Jan. 6 insurrection. The House’s Jan. 6 committee produced a thorough report and multiple criminal referrals, while the Ways and Means Committee, after a years-long legal battle, finally shook loose Trump’s tax returns.
Remember this moment: It might be the last time you see a competent government for at least two years. This will all come crashing down when — if — McCarthy assumes the speakership on Jan. 3.
McCarthy himself is trying to make sure dysfunction will dominate. Not only is he fighting to defeat the bipartisan omnibus spending bill, but he has threatened that any bill sponsored by any lawmaker who votes for the omnibus — Democrats and Republicans alike — will be “dead on arrival.”
In that, he sided with the more than 30 House Republicans who signed a letter this week demanding Senate Republicans “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.” They vowed to “thwart even the smallest legislative and policy efforts” of any senator supporting the spending bill — including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. (Eighteen Republican senators ignored the threat and voted for the bill Thursday afternoon.)
McCarthy’s threat would essentially shut down the House for two years and eventually bring the government to a halt. So what would McCarthy do with his speakership instead of legislating? Well, let’s just say that in his brief interview with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo this week, the word “subpoena” came up 11 times.
McConnell, the main target of McCarthy’s latest threat, reacted with pity. “I’m pulling for Kevin,” he told reporters. “I hope he makes it.”
He spoke as though the would-be House speaker had a terminal illness — which, in a sense, McCarthy has. One way or another, the abundance of dead-enders in the House GOP caucus will bring his demise.
The contretemps over the omnibus spending bill gave a taste of things to come after Jan. 3. There’s much to dislike about the process that produced the 4,155-page spending bill in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. But voting against the bipartisan plan at this point would be, effectively, a vote to shut the government down on Christmas Eve, a vote against a 10 percent increase in defense spending, a vote against $45 billion in aid to Ukraine, a vote against disaster aid and a vote against veterans’ health care.
“Senators have two options this week. Just two,” McConnell said on the Senate floor this week. “We will either give our armed forces the resources and certainty that they need, or we will deny it to them.”
McCarthy and his leadership team will vote to deny it to them.
A small band of far-right Republicans in the Senate made a symbolic stand in solidarity with McCarthy. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wheeled a cart into the Senate TV studio carrying a printout of the spending bill and bearing mock danger signs, including one with a skull and crossbones. (“WARNING: $1.7 TRILLION OF HAZARDOUS DEBT.”) “Thanks for bringing the prop,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told Paul.
Johnson then announced that “I’ve got my own prop here,” and he pulled out a four-inch-thick printout of earmarks from the bill.
Their protest was merely symbolic, and highly personal. “I guess there are a few things in Alabama that are yet to be named for Richard Shelby,” Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) said of his Republican colleague who negotiated the spending deal.
Republicans on Jan. 3 are set to unveil a new prop: the House gavel. With it, their symbolic protests become real. The hard-liners will have the power to throw the United States into default and bring government to a halt — and they intend to use it.
Think they wouldn’t do something so audacious? Then you should probably meet George Santos of New York.
Santos, the world now knows, hoodwinked Long Island voters into sending him to join the new Republican House majority on Jan. 3. The New York Times reported that there’s no evidence to support his claims that he attended Baruch College or worked at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. The Securities and Exchange Commission accused the company where he actually did work of engaging in a Ponzi scheme. Jewish publications cast doubt on his claims that his relatives were Holocaust refugees. Similar questions surround the charity he ran, the source of his wealth and other claims.
Santos’s lawyer blames a “smear” campaign. Only in the upside-down MAGA world could it be considered a smear to report that a member of Congress appears to have fabricated his entire résumé.
But Santos should fit right in with a party that, as Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said last week in his farewell speech, “has embraced lies and deceit.” House Republicans released a “report” on the Jan. 6 insurrection this week with a counterfactual narrative in which Trump merely encouraged his supporters to march “peacefully” on the Capitol. Also this week, two darlings of the QAnon crowd traded jabs. Boebert mocked Greene for her belief in “Jewish space lasers.”
Jewish lasers and phony credentials: For House Republicans, it’s going to be a truly fabulist year.