Kevin McCarthy Reached The Limit Of His Transactional Politics

WASHINGTON ― The many, many promises Kevin McCarthy made to his Republican colleagues caught up with him this week.

By overly pandering to Republicans and the party’s MAGA-focused base for the past two years, the California Republican found he had nothing to offer Democrats when it would have taken only a handful of their votes to save him.

Now, McCarthy is the first House speaker in U.S. history to have had his gavel yanked away by a vote of his colleagues. His subsequent decision not to run for the position again only underlined his lack of options to save a congressional career he’s been building since 1987, when he first arrived as a staffer.

In explaining why they would vote in favor of a resolution by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), to oust McCarthy, Democrats mentioned major trust issues again and again.

Their gripes ranged from McCarthy’s years-old work to undermine a special committee investigating Jan. 6, to his decision this summer to walk away from a spending deal negotiated with President Joe Biden, to an interview he gave this past weekend insisting Democrats had brought the government to the edge of a shutdown when they had actually bailed out McCarthy’s squabbling GOP conference.

“You are only as good as your word ― and time and again, Speaker McCarthy has proven that he is not a man of his word,” Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), chair of the 100-member New Democrat Coalition, said in a statement. “He is simply not trustworthy.”

McCarthy, however, said that perception was false, vigorously defending his honesty and denying his approach to politics was a quid pro quo one.

McCarthy’s best bet for a Democratic bailout would likely have come from the ranks of the moderate New Dems, but neither they nor any Democrats from the bipartisan Problem Solvers Congress were willing to lend him a hand.

Democrats loathe Gaetz, one of the House’s loudest Donald Trump supporters, but they were happy not only to make common cause with him but to carry his anti-McCarthy resolution, which won the support of only eight Republicans.

“The one thing that the White House, House Democrats and many of us on the conservative side of the Republican caucus would argue is that the thing we have in common [is] Kevin McCarthy said something to all of us at one point or another that he didn’t really mean and never intended to live up to,” Gaetz said on the House floor.

Part of McCarthy’s allure, for some Republicans at least, though, was his transactional approach to politics. He’s known for being a prodigious fundraiser and recruiter of GOP candidates. Within the Republican conference, he was known for remembering birthdays and the names of members’ families.

That was a distinctly different manner than his immediate Republican predecessors as speaker. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, was considered a policy wonk with deep ideological ties. Rep. John Boehner, an Ohioan, was something of a throwback, an amiable conservative who enjoyed a good glass of wine and a cigarette. While different, they both inspired deep loyalty among their lieutenants and also goodwill among broad swaths of the conference.

In January, in exchange for supporting his candidacy to be speaker, Republicans say McCarthy agreed to let the House vote on a conservative budget, to pass individual spending bills for federal agencies, and to refuse to pass bills with Democratic votes ― promises that have gone unfulfilled. McCarthy also agreed to a fateful change to House rules that allowed a single member to file a privileged motion forcing a snap no-confidence vote in his speakership.

For Democrats, several of McCarthy’s most dubious reversals had to do with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. McCarthy initially said Trump was responsible before blaming “everybody across this country” for the riot, and then flying to Mar-a-Lago to stand side-by-side with the disgraced ex-president in an iconic photo.

“McCarthy was so desperate on Jan. 6 he called Trump from his office to ask him to call off the insurrection, and yet he still could not summon up the courage to vote to impeach Trump,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) told reporters on Tuesday.

Instead of impeaching Trump, McCarthy said a fact-finding commission would be more appropriate. He criticized an initial Democratic proposal to create a commission with more Democratic than Republican appointees, but when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered an even party split, McCarthy bailed on the idea altogether.

“Now he has proceeded to agitate for the impeachment of Joe Biden for no reason at all,” Raskin said. “So I think he has set himself against the constitutional order and against the interests of the American people, so I would never vote for him to be speaker.”

McCarthy pulled a dramatic switcheroo last month on the question of opening an impeachment inquiry against Biden, which he said could only be done by a vote of the House, rather than by his own edict. Weeks later he announced that he had opened the inquiry by himself.

Democrats also say McCarthy went back on the debt ceiling deal negotiated earlier in the year. While the deal technically set upper limits on annual spending for agencies, and programs aside from Social Security and Medicare, McCarthy, after getting blowback from his conservative wing, said Republicans would propose spending well below those levels, leaving Democrats fuming.

At a press conference formally announcing his decision not to run for speaker again, McCarthy denied he took a transactional approach or had been dishonest. He took issue with Gaetz’s description of his compliance with the January deal and with Democrats’ insistence he had broken the debt limit deal.

On the recently passed short-term funding bill, he said that was not an example of his willingness to trade one thing for another.

“I tried to pass a conservative stopgap measure that secured the border and actually cut spending. When that didn’t go, the only bill that was going was over in the Senate. That had a stopgap measure, disaster [aid] and Ukraine [aid]. I made a decision as speaker to keep the government open and I put something on the floor,” he said.

“If you ask me a question, I’m going to answer back [with a question] because when it’s not true, it’s not fair.”

In the end, even small things rankled Democrats and left them unsympathetic.

In an interview on CBS’ News “Face The Nation” Sunday, McCarthy told anchor Margaret Brennan he wasn’t sure the bill to stop a government shutdown would pass because “the Democrats tried to do everything they can not to let it pass.”

Democrats provided 209 of the bill’s 335 votes in favor.

A clip of that interview was shown at the start of the Democrats’ meeting on what to do about the speakership question Tuesday.

“There is no love for Kevin in that room. He doesn’t have any friends. Nobody rose to speak about his days in Bakersfield,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) after leaving the meeting.

Asked about the “Face The Nation” interview’s impact, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said, “Oh, you mean when Speaker McCarthy just, like, lied? Yeah, that wasn’t helpful.”

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