Last week in Congress, Democrats were in array. As Republican Kevin McCarthy endured 14 rounds of humiliating losses before being elected speaker early Saturday morning, the Dems gleefully, repeatedly declared themselves united.
And they had a marvelous time doing it. Members shared photos of themselves reveling in the GOP discord and bringing popcorn to the House chamber. They tweeted memes and insults, taunting the majority party for its infighting and lack of discipline. Rep. Katie Porter, who—incidentally—announced her bid for Senate on Tuesday, posed for the cameras in the Capitol while reading (or pretending to read) a book titled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.
But now that Congress is in session, Democrats will actually have to reckon with the lasting effects of the GOP speaker standoff. In exchange for his final votes, McCarthy promised to confer plum committee positions to several members of the hardline Freedom Caucus and made changes to the House rules that will make it extremely difficult for the House to do much legislating. The longer last week’s fight lasted, the more concessions McCarthy made, and the more power the MAGA wing of the House GOP accrued.
In other words, popcorn time is over. The prospect of a House run by the most conservative and reckless faction of the Republican Party should be enough to dim any lingering Democratic smirks.
Sure, some of the current dysfunction could redound to the Democrats’ advantage in the 2024 election. Ultraconservative weirdos like Reps. Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert, the likes of whom will have disproportionate influence in this session of Congress, are not sitting with America’s popular clique right now. So if voters spend the next two years watching a handful of Trump loyalists with vile personalities take the reins of various committees and subcommittees—only to spend their days grandstanding and pursuing political grievances—they might not be so keen to keep Republicans in charge when control of the House is up for grabs again. (Also, when Republicans make moves on their zanier priorities, such as defunding the Internal Revenue Service, Democrats can rest easy knowing that Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer will eat his own reading glasses before allowing the legislation onto the Senate floor.)
But there are two things that the House absolutely must do this year to keep the government running and avoid a total economic collapse: raise the debt ceiling and pass spending bills, with the Senate, that fund federal agencies and programs. Despite the calamitous consequences of failing to cross these priorities off the to-do list, they won’t be easy to pull off.
It was already going to be hard to get the Democrat-controlled Senate and the GOP-controlled House to agree on appropriations measures. Now that McCarthy has promised the Freedom Caucus even more extreme spending cuts, it’s much worse.
McCarthy additionally committed to allowing unlimited amendments on spending bills, which will let far-right members of Congress attach outrageous provisions that advance their pet causes—like preventing low-income D.C. residents from getting abortions—to must-pass legislation in order to gum up the process. This could force Democrats to choose between shutting down the government or caving on issues that are core to the party’s agenda.
Republicans have also threatened to refuse to raise the debt ceiling this year—a necessary action for the country to avoid a default on the national debt and a massive economic crisis—unless Democrats go along with their plan to reduce federal spending by billions of dollars, possibly including cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Democrats have said they will not abide any Republican attempts to pressure them into slashing essential federal programs, even if they threaten to take the global economy hostage. Chris Van Hollen, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told the Washington Post, “there is a line in the sand here, and we’re not going to give the extreme Republicans their wish list in exchange for them simply allowing the country to pay its bills on time.”
But without a majority in the House, what can Democrats do?
There are some possible pathways through the mess. For one thing, not every Republican is willing to force the country into a full-on recession, trigger a government shutdown, or tell constituents back home that they won’t be able to retire until they’re dead. So it’s possible that House Dems could band together with some semi-reasonable Republicans (likely vulnerable legislators from swing districts) on government funding bills that include some moderate, but not catastrophic, cuts. Because Republicans can only spare five votes from their narrow majority, McCarthy and his allies may have to decide whether they’d rather work with Democrats or the hardliners on the Freedom Caucus to pass crucial appropriations measures.
And if establishment Republicans choose to deal with Dems, “we’re not going to be a cheap date,” Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat on the House Rules Committee, told Vox.
But it’s not hard to imagine McCarthy caving to the right-wing rebels yet again, and not just because the speaker, not known as the brightest tool in the shed, has already shown himself to be a glutton for degradation. As part of his deal with the Republicans who spent last week blocking his ascent to the speakership, he agreed to reinstate a rule that allows any single member of Congress to force a vote to oust the speaker—at any time. The same rule was employed by then-Rep. Mark Meadows in 2015 to challenge John Boehner’s speakership, in part because of some Republicans’ frustration that Boehner had worked with Democrats to pass spending bills. It raised the temperature of dissent among the House GOP and eventually led to Boehner’s retirement.
Relatedly, McCarthy became speaker by promising to install three hardliners on the powerful House Rules Committee, which determines what legislation comes up for a vote and which amendments are debated. So, since the committee will likely comprise six generic Republicans, three hardliners, and four Democrats, there is a chance that Democrats on the committee could opt to (or threaten to) join up with Freedom Caucus members to block bills supported by House Republican leaders and hold out for their own concessions.
Still, it will be a surprise if Democrats and the Freedom Caucus work together to foil the priorities of McCarthy and his allies—even more so if McCarthy sides with the Dems. Yet with so many ultraconservative Republicans in Congress who enthusiastically prioritize their own personal brands over preserving the functions of government (see: Jan. 6, 2021), it’s certainly not out of the question. It may even be the only option.