The new Republican majority in the US House of Representatives is set to take office next week amid a swirl of division and controversy, as leader Kevin McCarthy rushes to overcome internal opposition to his speakership and an incoming New York congressman is rocked by scandals.
The launch of the new Congress, set for January 3, was always expected to be somewhat fraught for Republicans after they failed to win control of the Senate and only secured a slim edge in the lower chamber of Congress in last month’s midterm elections.
But the troubles and fissures within the party have continued to multiply in the seven weeks since the vote, which bodes poorly for its ability to govern effectively and strike compromises with President Joe Biden and the Democrats in the coming two years.
A handful of members of the hard-right and mostly pro-Trump Freedom Caucus have explicitly vowed to vote against McCarthy becoming Speaker. They believe the backlash is broad enough for their campaign to succeed and sink McCarthy’s bid for the top position in the House.
“He should withdraw before next Tuesday so we can unite behind a consensus candidate that can get to 218,” Bob Good, a Virginia Republican, said in an interview, referring to the number of votes needed to take up the Speaker’s gavel.
Good, who is leading the charge against McCarthy, said there were “more than enough members” — somewhere in the range of 10 to 15 — who would vote to deny McCarthy the speakership on the first ballot, but it “could be more”. He added that he expected that number to grow after that.
McCarthy has the support of most Republicans, including those in the more establishment-friendly and moderate wing of the party. But he has drawn the ire of staunch conservatives such as Good.
Good said McCarthy had not effectively fought big spending bills supported by Democrats and was not sufficiently committed to impeaching Biden or Merrick Garland, the attorney-general. McCarthy would continue to challenge conservatives in primaries and give top committee assignments to moderates, Good added.
“If you want to maintain the status quo in Washington, Kevin McCarthy is your man,” he said.
Meanwhile, the run-up to the new Congress has been dominated by a scandal engulfing George Santos, a Republican who was newly elected in the midterms to represent a wealthy district in Long Island.
Santos had been a symbol of the party’s gains in the New York suburbs, but in recent days he admitted that he had “embellished” his resume after revelations that he misled voters about everything from his religious faith and family history to his education and career.
Among Santos’s most outlandish falsehoods was a claim that he was a “proud American Jew” when in fact he was a practising Catholic. He had told the New York Post that he was “Jew-ish” due to his “maternal family background”. Santos also had claimed to have worked for Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, and to have obtained a degree from Baruch College in New York, all of which turned out to be inaccurate.
The district attorney in Nassau County has opened a probe into Santos’s “numerous fabrications and inconsistencies”, a spokesperson said while The New York Times reported federal prosecutors in Brooklyn had also opened an investigation “focused at least in part on his financial dealings”.
Some Republicans have criticised Santos, although they have stopped short of calling for his resignation. Nick LaLota, a Republican who was also newly elected to a House seat representing Long Island, said his constituents were “deeply troubled” by the headlines around Santos and gave his backing to the investigations.
“New Yorkers deserve the truth and House Republicans deserve an opportunity to govern without this distraction,” he said.
Former leftwing Democrat congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who is now a Fox News show host, grilled Santos this week in an interview. “Do you have no shame?” she asked.
But Marjorie Taylor Greene, the pro-Trump Georgia Republican, rushed to his defence. “I think we Republicans should give George Santos a chance and see how he legislates and votes, not treat him the same as the left is,” she wrote on Twitter.
Good said it was “disappointing and unfortunate” to hear that Santos had misrepresented his past, but that he would not call for his removal.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders kept quiet, full in the knowledge that every vote counts ahead of the speakership election next week and beyond.
“A political party with any sort of intact immune system would move quickly to send this sociopath back to ScamLand, whence he came,” wrote Charlie Sykes, editor-in-chief of The Bulwark, an anti-Trump Republican newsletter. “But this is the GOP circa 2022, and so it faces a painful dilemma. With a narrow majority in the House, Republicans (and especially Kevin McCarthy) need his vote, of course.”
Brendan Buck, a former House Republican aide now at Seven Letter, a consultancy, said McCarthy was “mostly likely to get there, but I sure can’t guarantee it” with just days left to go.
“He’s the choice of the overwhelming majority of the conference, and at some point all those members are going to lose patience with this little band of misfits. It may well take a few ballots and a concession or two, but he’s set up to lean on them and get the gavel eventually,” he added.
Even if a last-minute agreement is struck with the dissidents to secure the 218 votes, it could involve significant concessions from McCarthy that would leave him at the whim of Freedom Caucus demands throughout his tenure.
These might include agreeing to a rule that would allow any single Republican to bring a motion to remove him from his post, and set a timeframe for consideration of legislation. That could make it harder for McCarthy to pass bills that involve any concessions to the White House or Democrats.
“[The speakership battle] is indicative of just how ungovernable this majority will be,” wrote Chris Krueger, of Cowen Washington Research Group. “The struggle to cobble 218 likely pales in comparison to the difficulty around lifting the debt ceiling along with funding the government in the new fiscal year beginning October 1.”
McCarthy defenders have vowed to fight on. “There is no plan B here. The plan is to get McCarthy elected as Speaker,” David Valadao, the Republican congressman from California, told CNN this week. “We can be there all night. We can be there two or three days. It doesn’t really matter.”