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  • Cole Whittington

Republicans Squabble in Uncharted Territory; Embattled Caucus elects Mike Johnson as Speaker

Couresy of US News

Ever since eight Republicans, led by Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL), joined all present Democrats in removing Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), business in the House was put on pause. With the deadline to pass a budget rapidly approaching and President Biden’s aid bills to Israel and Ukraine lingering, the need for a Speaker and House activities to resume was dire.

At the beginning of October, for the first time in history, the House voted to remove the speaker in a 216-210 vote. McCarthy’s historical beginning to his speakership in January saw 15 ballots before finally winning the position.

More than three weeks following McCarthy’s defeat, through intense caucus debate, House Republicans finally united to elect Mike Johnson (R-LA) as McCarthy’s replacement.

Party infighting in the GOP has plagued the caucus for the entire legislative session beginning in January of 2023. With only a 9-seat margin, the slimmest since 2002, Republicans have little room for dissent within their caucus.

Gaetz Leads Rebellion

“Kevin McCarthy is a creature of the swamp…we are breaking the fever now,” said Gaetz, referencing the derogatory phrase “swamp” used to describe politicians that serve lobbyists instead of their electorate that was most popularized by former President Trump during his 2016 Presidential campaign.

Gaetz and the other seven Republicans, including Representative Andy Biggs (R-AZ), banded together to form a powerful faction within the GOP that made it extremely difficult for McCarthy to win the gavel back in January. Many representatives in this group are members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus and deny that President Biden defeated former President Trump in the 2020 election.

This faction is adamant about “America First,” a doctrine most recently professed by Trump, and ending funding to Ukraine to fight Russia. Democrats and Republicans, including nearly every Republican at the GOP primary debate, have cited that ending funding to Ukraine will allow Russia to take over the country and inspire China to do the same in Taiwan, a disputed territory in the South China Sea. However, the united eight Republican representatives argue that this funding should be under more scrutiny and rerouted to protect the U.S. border with Mexico, viewing aid to Ukraine as “inflationary, escalatory, (and) dangerous.

This issue, coupled with McCarthy’s compromise with Democrats to keep the government open instead of caving to pressure from his more conservative wing, ultimately led to the eight Republicans kicking him from his position.

While the removal of McCarthy gained support from many conservatives and Trump, some Republicans expressed anger for Gaetz and his rebellious crew. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) called for House Republicans to expel Gaetz, describing him as “anti-Republican.”

Democrats Missing in Action

Democrats didn’t seem too eager to step in and save McCarthy by voting to keep him in power despite his previous compromises. Prior to the vote that ended McCarthy’s speakership, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) told reporters, “Let them (Republicans) wallow in their pigsty of incompetence.” After the vote, Massachusetts Democrat Katherine Clark stated that the California Republican had “proven unworthy of presiding over the House.” Without an incentive from McCarthy, the entire Democratic caucus voted against the ex-Speaker to remain in power.

Dark Horse Candidate fills Position

North Carolina Republican Patrick McHenry temporarily assumed the position of speaker immediately following the vote of no confidence that ended McCarthy’s speakership. Initially, numerous names from the caucus were thrown around as possible replacements, such as fourth-ranking House Republican Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and even former President Trump, but two names rose to the top: Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH). Although technically, any person is eligible for the position of speaker since there are no rules requiring the leader of the House to be a current representative–making Trump eligible–this has never happened in the history of the United States. The caucus initially pushed for Scalise as he’s in the natural line of succession, being the second-ranking House Republican only to McCarthy. However, he failed to achieve enough support for his bid on the floor, prompting him to remove his name from consideration quickly.

Jordan, a prominent Trump supporter and founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, secured more support within the Republican caucus and pushed the vote to the House. Trump and many of his supporters avidly rushed to support Jordan as the next speaker. After three failed attempts to win the 217 votes–losing more and more votes each time–Jordan removed his name from consideration. Centrist Republicans who don’t support the GOP’s move to the right explain Jordan’s three consecutive defeats. These Republicans have faced harassment and even death threats for withholding their support for Jordan.

Following Jordan’s thrice defeat, nine Republicans entered the race to be the next speaker, including House Freedom Caucus member Byron Donalds of Florida and third-ranking House Republican Tom Emmer of Minnesota. After winning the Republican Conference’s nomination, Emmer quickly removed his name from consideration after facing blowback from Trump. “Globalist RINO” and “totally out-of-touch with Republican voters” were the phrases the former president used to describe Emmer, derailing his speakership campaign.

Finally, the GOP caucus settled on its fourth nomination for speaker in little-known Republican Mike Johnson, one of the other nine candidates. On October 25, with a united Republican Conference, the Louisiana lawmaker was elected as House speaker, receiving more votes, at 220, than McCarthy received when he was elected.

Trump Lingers in House

This is another showdown between the established Republican party faction and a new, more outspoken “America First'' faction championed by Trump. As previously mentioned, a small group of Republicans withheld their support from then-Speaker candidate McCarthy, prolonging the vote for the speaker to 15 votes across four days. This was the longest battle for the speakership since before the Civil War when, for two months across 133 votes, lawmakers argued. Finally, after hours of negotiating, McCarthy was able to strike a deal with the tiny faction in exchange for their support. In the end, McCarthy agreed to numerous concessions, including bringing the number of representatives needed to call a vote of no confidence to remove the speaker from five to one. This ultimately ended McCarthy’s control of the gavel eight months later.

It is clear Trump’s presence in the Republican Party is felt by lawmakers. The former president, through the power of his social media platform, Truth Social, derailed both Scalise and Emmer’s campaigns to be speaker by calling into question their health and allegiance to the Republican Party, respectively. His continued influence following his presidential election loss in 2020 has raised questions within the GOP as to whether he should continue to be the leading figure of the party.

It is unlikely that the battle between the establishment wing of the Republican Party and the Trump wing will simmer before the contentious election just thirteen months away and with the criminal charges against Trump. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blamed the failure of the GOP to win back the Senate last fall during the 2022 midterms on the now constant battle between the two wings. Some Republicans, such as former Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), blame the increased political violence and party infighting on Trump, who she says is the single most dangerous threat we face.” Others like Stefanik are confident that their side will prevail. Either way, the next thirteen months will likely play a major in the direction of the Republican Party for the coming decade.


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