The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kevin McCarthy’s disastrous travails show Democrats must defang MAGA

Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the House Republican leader. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
4 min

Kevin McCarthy’s hopes for becoming House speaker are in trouble after falling short on numerous ballots. But whatever happens to the California Republican, we already know this: The extreme MAGA caucus will essentially be pointing a gun at the head of the House GOP leadership for the next two years.

House Democrats will have to do all they can to minimize the damage. According to Democratic aides, this will turn partly on their ability to put effective political pressure on the 18 House Republicans who were elected in 2022 in districts carried by Joe Biden two years earlier.

That pressure would ideally persuade some of those Republicans to break with their GOP colleagues and join with Democrats to block the worst MAGA designs.

This imperative is already visible in McCarthy’s latest travails. On Tuesday afternoon, opposition from the MAGA-fied House Freedom Caucus hardened, as 19 conservatives voted against McCarthy’s bid for speaker. With Democrats opposed, he could lose only four Republicans.

McCarthy has already made extraordinary concessions to hard-right Republicans. He released a House rules package that would allow five members to call for a vote at any time on whether his speakership should end.

Cartoon by Ann Telnaes: Kevin McCarthy is looking for votes

If that rule goes into effect, it would mean a handful of MAGA extremists could demand extraordinary concessions simply by threatening to call such a vote. “That rule empowers any group of five to force McCarthy, or whoever is speaker, to bend to their demands,” congressional expert Sarah Binder tells me.

McCarthy’s rules package would also reinstate the obscure “Holman Rule,” which would allow the House to target salaries of individual federal employees. A central demand of hard-rightists, this could functionally allow House Republicans to target law enforcement investigations or future prosecutions of former president Donald Trump with defunding efforts.

In theory, congressional oversight of law enforcement can, of course, be conducted in good faith, and that’s an essential component of the rule of law. In reality, though, little of good faith will be forthcoming from this brigade, which tends to treat any and all efforts at accountability for Trump as illegitimate by definition.

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So, we can expect a GOP-controlled House to launch a circus of hearings conducted in bad faith to try to discredit the utterly damning findings of the committee that examined Trump’s insurrection.

There will also surely be efforts to shut down the government (once funding runs out next fall) over many extreme demands, including but not limited to the defunding of investigations of Trump. Others could include a functional end to asylum seeking at the border. You could also see the radicals insist that McCarthy (or whoever is speaker) withhold support for a debt-limit hike — wielding the threat of default and economic catastrophe — to force any number of such concessions.

Democrats tell me the 18 Republicans from Biden districts will be key to their response.

“They will have to choose whether they will be a part of the Freedom Caucus’s destructive force,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) told me in a statement. “House Democrats can shine a light on the choices these moderates make.”

Democrats must employ a range of tools to make the GOP embrace of MAGA priorities and tactics as politically painful as possible for those 18 Republicans.

One model might be how House Democrats handled the minority during the 2017-2018 cycle, one Democratic leadership aide tells me. Democrats used a combination of aggressive messaging and intense grass-roots organizing in the districts of vulnerable House Republicans to focus attention on House GOP votes to cut corporate taxes and repeal the Affordable Care Act.

That laid the groundwork for the decisive 2018 Democratic House takeover, and something similar could be attempted again. “It starts with holding these Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts accountable for their voting records — 365 days, and from day one,” Democratic strategist Dan Sena, a key architect of the 2018 victory, told me.

Those 18 Republicans might also be key to the ability of Democrats to employ so-called discharge petitions. These would allow a majority of House members to force votes even without the assent of the GOP leadership, which (under pressure from the right) would be loath to allow them.

Discharge petitions don’t have a history of success. But Binder, the congressional expert, notes that with such a narrow Republican majority, the success of the tactic can’t be counted out, particularly with those 18 Republicans eager to avert, say, a defunding of the FBI or catastrophic default. Binder says the discharge tactic would “put a lot of pressure on those Republicans to defect and join the Democrats.”

Much of what MAGA-fied House Republicans attempt will be thwarted by the Democratic Senate. But they nonetheless threaten tremendous damage. For House Democrats, limiting that damage will require the full and creative use of all the political and legislative resources at their disposal.