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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy and a former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy scored a big win with the passage of a Republican debt-limit proposal stocked with spending cuts and other rollbacks to Democratic priorities. While the measure has no chance of winning support of Senate Democrats or President Joe Biden, it sets up a period of fierce confrontation between the two parties.
Until last week, we appeared headed for a different outcome. After the chaos of the speaker election in January, it seemed possible that House Republicans, given their narrow House majority, would realize that anything that would eventually pass into law would need a bipartisan coalition of the center against the ideological fringes.
It was also possible that we would witness more chaos, with the House proving ungovernable, McCarthy’s job constantly in danger and more failed votes on the House floor.
But somewhat surprisingly, McCarthy managed to foster a consensus with both moderate and far-right Republicans, at least around this one bill that everyone knew was more about messaging than realistic policy. It’s a trajectory that promises maximum conflict with President Joe Biden and the Democratic Senate.
The vote not only raises the chance of a debt-limit breach and financial panic; it also means that we’re on the way to a series of hostage-taking episodes, with the chances of a government shutdown in the fall also growing, and the promise, if the GOP extremists get their way, of another debt-limit showdown in less than a year.
There are three big lessons from the House vote. First, McCarthy can count votes. There was a lot of question even before the speaker-vote fiasco about whether McCarthy and his allies were competent at the basic tasks of running the House, especially with such a small majority. He and his party have passed that test.
We also learned that it’s still a top-down House. The January rebels against McCarthy made a big show of supporting internal reforms to restore the influence of House committees along with individual members and their particular interests. That’s dead now. The McCarthy House procedurally is just as top-down (or more) as the House of Nancy Pelosi or Paul Ryan: Deals that produce bills are organized by the speaker or his representatives, not hashed out through a committee process.
Finally, we discovered that House GOP radicals want substantive influence, rather than more intra-party squabbling. They are using their newfound leverage to win internal disagreements over the content of bills. But that shift in attitude doesn’t mean they are open to deal-making between the parties, so enacting anything into law will get harder. Giving the extremists influence beyond their numbers within the party makes it less likely that common ground can be found on other important subjects, whether it’s immigration or foreign policy or veterans’ issues.
Had the committees really gained power, cross-party coalitions would have been more possible at that level; if there was sheer chaos in the House, then it’s possible that the majority party might have lost the ability to block cross-party deals from reaching final votes.
But if Republicans can manage to stick together for McCarthy in order to deliver bills designed to please the radicals? We’re in for nothing but confrontation.