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The empty threats of the House Freedom Caucus
Full of sound and fury...
Tuesday in Washington was dominated by chatter that a revolt was afoot among House Republicans.
It was led by the House Freedom Caucus, the most conservative members of the GOP, who were very, very unhappy with the debt ceiling deal that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had cut with the Biden White House.
So upset were they that there was talk of setting in motion the legislative underpinnings of an effort to oust McCarthy.
“It is inescapable to me,” said North Carolina Rep. Dan Bishop of the possibility of a motion to vacate the speakership. “It has to be done.”
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz said something similar. “If a majority of Republicans are against a piece of legislation and you use Democrats to pass it, that would immediately be a black-letter violation of the deal we had with McCarthy” Gaetz argued. “And it would likely trigger an immediate motion to vacate.”
Big doings! Things are happening!
By Tuesday night, talk of a rebellion that could lead to McCarthy’s ouster had quieted significantly. By Wednesday morning, McCarthy was back in charge; “McCarthy puts down a last-minute revolt,” read the headline on Politico’s Playbook.
Here’s the real story though: The threats by the Freedom Caucus were always empty. There was — and is — no real plan for ousting McCarthy.
Why? Because, at some base level, the Freedom Caucus know, in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda. that they don’t have the votes.
Think back to how McCarthy became Speaker earlier this year.
Yes, it was a long and embarrassing process for him — 15 votes! And, yes, the main impediment to McCarthy getting the votes he needed was the House Freedom Caucus.
But, at NO point was the Freedom Caucus able to get more than 20-ish votes for its preferred Speaker alternative. The vote went on for days! McCarthy was there for the taking! And yet, time and time again, the Freedom Caucus couldn’t get one of their own across the line — or even close.
And that’s really important — and informs this latest bluff of the Freedom Caucus.
What the Freedom Caucus has the power to do is a) disrupt McCarthy’s plans and b) demand concessions to get closer to what they want.
What the Freedom Caucus lacks the power to do is actually get rid of McCarthy and replace him with a candidate of their choosing.
There is simply no member of the Freedom Caucus who could get the votes for Speaker. Not in January, not today and not in 6 months time.
The smarter members of the Freedom Caucus — Jim Jordan, for one — understand this. Some of the rank and file do not. Hence Tuesday’s threats.
The Freedom Caucus is best understood as a rump group of agitators without any long-term (or even medium term) plan to put one of their own in a position of power.
“Get rid of McCarthy yada yada yada Freedom Caucus runs the House” is not a plan. (You yada yada’ed the best part!)
McCarthy, to his credit, seems to grasp the limits of the Freedom Caucus’ power. He didn’t freak out on Tuesday when talk of ousting him as speaker began. He never made any big threats against them. He let the situation sort itself out. And it did.
None of the above is to say that the Freedom Caucus has no power within the House. They do have some! Because of the narrowness of McCarthy’s Republican majority, every vote really does matter. And the Freedom Caucus’ willingness to hold the line longer than anyone else in the GOP conference ensures they will be at the bargaining table when deals get cut.
But, what the Freedom Caucus lacks is the ability to elect a Speaker. And so, when you hear them makes threats about how they are going to get rid of McCarthy — and this isn’t the last time they will do it! — remember this debt ceiling episode.
Their threats are empty -- and should be treated as such.
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