‘A disaster’: Speaker fight exposes GOP leadership vacuum

Jan 4, 2023, 7:22 AM | Updated: Jan 5, 2023, 10:04 pm
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., leaves the floor after the House adjourned until later in the evenin...

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., leaves the floor after the House adjourned until later in the evening as the House meets for a second day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

NEW YORK (AP) — With House Republicans riven by infighting, unable to coalesce around a pick for speaker, former President Donald Trump had an emphatic message for the new GOP majority.

“Do not turn a great triumph into a giant & embarrassing defeat,” Trump warned in all-caps on his social media platform Wednesday morning, urging the 20 or so insurgents to “close the deal” and back Kevin McCarthy.

It didn’t help. Only one voter budged: a previous McCarthy backer who opted to vote “present” instead.

The stalemate is more than an embarrassment for McCarthy, who is now the first person in a century to muddle through multiple ballots — six so far — and appears no closer to clinching the job than when voting began. The revolt is raising alarms within the party as members warn they are sabotaging their new, narrow majority and alienating voters as they struggle to perform their most basic function: electing their own leader.

The episode also poses more profound questions about the party’s identity and future. It’s a fresh reminder of Trump’s waning influence inside the GOP — even among the most vocal supporters of his Make America Great Again political movement — as he again seeks the party’s presidential nomination, exposing a leadership vacuum with no obvious alternative to unite the party and guide it through practical governing responsibilities and political challenges.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned that the anti-McCarthy Republicans were “playing with fire.”

“This is the greatest danger we’ve had as a party since 1964,” Gingrich said in an interview, referring to the Republican National Convention that saw moderates facing off against conservative insurgents. The Republican base, he said, is “watching chaos in the House and they’re watching the potential for a Never-Trump and an Always-Trump collision that could be devastatingly divisive.”

The party’s allies in conservative media were equally distressed.

“This is a disaster for the Republicans,” Fox News host Steve Doocy said Wednesday on “Fox & Friends.” Sean Hannity said Tuesday night that House Republicans “are now on the verge of becoming a total clown show if they’re not careful.”

On Tuesday, McCarthy failed to win the required majority on three ballots as a group of 20 Republican rebels insisted on a more conservative alternative. On Wednesday, the anti-McCarthy group ticked up to 21 through three more failed votes.

Until a speaker is chosen, the elected representatives to the House cannot be sworn in, leaving Congress’ lower chamber in a suspended state of dysfunction.

The extraordinary infighting rippled across the Republican ecosystem as the 2024 election cycle gets underway.

“What I’m hearing from grassroots Republicans, donors, candidates and even federal elected officials is that there’s a significant leadership vacuum on the Republican side,” said Harmeet Dhillon, a California attorney who is challenging Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel to lead the party’s organizing committee.

Dhillon declined to issue an endorsement in the speaker’s election, noting only that “there’s a feeling that the old guard doesn’t get it.”

The chaos stood in sharp contrast with Democrats, who are largely united behind President Joe Biden heading into the new presidential election season.

As one of the failed Republican House votes unfolded Wednesday, Biden appeared alongside Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell at a Kentucky event designed to highlight the bipartisan infrastructure package the Democratic president signed into law in 2021. Trump responded by lashing out at McConnell in a racist attack against McConnell’s wife, Trump’s former transportation secretary.

“This is who they are. Crisis, confusion, disarray. It’s unfortunate,” Pete Aguilar, the House Democratic Caucus chair, said at a news conference.

Much of the dysfunction plaguing the current-day GOP is linked to the party’s embrace of Trump’s slash-and-burn politics and the former president’s weakened political standing. McCarthy exemplifies that model, having traveled to Mar-a-Lago in early 2021 to visit Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection — a move that helped cement Trump’s political resuscitation and was widely seen as part of an effort by McCarthy to bolster his speaker bid.

But while Trump explicitly called for his supposed loyalists to back McCarthy on Wednesday morning, none of the 20 House Republicans who opposed McCarthy the day before — all from the so-called MAGA wing of the party — heeded Trump’s call.

That’s even after Trump phoned McCarthy’s Republican critics and asked them to “knock it off,” Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert said on the House floor Wednesday as she nominated Florida Republican Byron Donalds to the speakership instead.

In a moment of rare public defiance of Trump’s wishes, Boebert said Trump needed to instead “tell Kevin McCarthy that, ‘Sir, you do not have the votes and it’s time to withdraw.'”

As Trump struggled to exert his influence, several would-be rivals in the upcoming presidential primary offered their own brand of leadership from afar.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, coming off a strong reelection victory in November, criticized the Republican-led House.

“Should we really be surprised that a bunch of morons in Congress are holding things up? Of course not,” Sununu said in a statement.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who is expected to launch a White House bid after he leaves office later this month, used the moment to highlight his own executive leadership.

“Republicans are hungry for meat-and-potato conservative results from the new majority in Washington like Republican governors are already delivering, but all they’re getting is a handful of mixed nuts,” Hogan said. “It’s time to move past this circus and show the country that we can govern with competence and common sense.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another potential 2024 Republican contender, suggested his party’s struggle to elect a new speaker was a somewhat typical challenge for the party that does not occupy the White House.

“We need to have this fight out in public. We need to have it out loud. And we need to then resolve it,” Christie said in an interview. “This is what happens when you’re a party out of power that doesn’t have a clear national leader.”

No matter how quickly the speaker’s fight is decided, the GOP’s broader leadership vacuum will persist for the foreseeable future.

By month’s end, the RNC must settle its leadership battle as McDaniel fights for a fourth term. At stake is the future of the GOP’s national infrastructure and tens of millions of dollars in Republican resources.

By late spring, the Republican presidential nomination fight will begin in earnest, pitting ambitious candidates across the political spectrum against Trump in a fight for party supremacy.

And by next fall, the GOP’s delicate House majority will be tasked with governing responsibilities involving the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, among other legislative responsibilities with significant real-world consequences.

Christie suggested the new presidential primary season — set to play out over the next year and a half — is designed to determine the next generation of Republican leadership.

“By the time we get to the convention in July of 2024, I suspect it will be resolved,” Christie said.

But Gingrich, a longtime Trump ally, warned the leadership fight could have lasting ramifications, leading the base to wonder why they donated money to Senate and House candidates “to get this mess.”

“I think the guys in the House are doing substantial damage to the Republican Party and don’t even realize it,” Gingrich said.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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‘A disaster’: Speaker fight exposes GOP leadership vacuum