Trump and his radicals take Congress hostage

The dramatic multi-day election of Speaker McCarthy – who was forced to make major concessions to less than 10% of his Republican caucus – foreshadows how dysfunctional the next session of the US House will be

Newly-elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy holds the gavel before he addresses the lower chamber of the US Congress, just before dawn on Saturday, January 7, 2023.
Newly-elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy holds the gavel before he addresses the lower chamber of the US Congress, just before dawn on Saturday, January 7, 2023.MICHAEL REYNOLDS (EFE)

Last Friday, just after Kevin McCarthy lost his 14th vote to become Speaker of the House of Representatives, Marjorie Taylor Greene – a far-right congresswoman who is close to former US president Donald Trump – desperately held out her phone to a fellow rebel Republican. The initials on the screen – captured by a watchful photographer – commanded attention: D.T.

On the other end of the line, it appears that the former president was aiming to flip some votes. According to McCarthy – a 57-year-old veteran congressman from California – his calls were decisive.

After the 15th ballot, the Republican leader was finally elected speaker, but he paid a very high price, after offering major concessions to the most radical wing of his party. Now, Speaker McCarthy – along with the Republican Party and the entire US Congress – are likely going to spend the next two years being held hostage by Trump and his most loyal followers.

The election of McCarthy ended a week of political drama in Washington, unprecedented for over a century. The two-year legislative session of the US House of Representatives was delayed by more than three days by 21 far-right congresspeople, who make up less than 10% of the 222-member-strong Republican caucus. These individuals preferred to put the country’s government on hold in order to flex their political muscle. With the Republicans only holding a slim majority over the Democrats – who have 212 seats in the House – the power of the radicals is disproportionate to their small numbers.

The new Republican leader was chosen in a session that began on the second anniversary of the January 6 assault on the US Capitol. That day, thousands of violent Trump supporters – convinced that the 2020 election had been stolen from the defeated president – stormed the legislature, resulting in the death and injury of multiple law enforcement officials. As denounced by Democratic congressman Pete Aguilar in the plenary session, “the same individuals who fanned the flames of January 6 – who told their followers that they needed to fight back and who challenged the oath of the members based on a false claim,” were the ones who brought the legislative branch of government to a halt over the past week.

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene holds out her cellphone to a fellow member of Congress – the initials of Donald Trump are visible.
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene holds out her cellphone to a fellow member of Congress – the initials of Donald Trump are visible.CHIP SOMODEVILLA (Getty Images via AFP)

To get the 21 extremists in his party to vote for him – or, at least, to abstain from the vote for speaker – McCarthy promised major regulatory modifications regarding how the chamber is run, while also offering a disproportionate number of positions on powerful House committees to the holdouts. For the next two years, any proposal to increase spending must be matched by a separate initiative to cut federal spending in a different part of the government. New investigative committees will also be opened to cause hell for President Joe Biden regarding his disastrous pullout from Afghanistan – which left the country in the hands of the Taliban – his border control policies, as well as what many Republicans consider to be his partisan use of the Department of Justice. Simultaneously, any committees investigating Trump will be shuttered.

Other changes include a new 72-hour minimum period between the introduction of legislation and the scheduled vote on said legislation – a modification that has received some bipartisan support, given that leadership in both parties tend to rush bills through the House without giving individual members time to read them. Another change – one that could lead to routine chaos – is that, for the next two years, any member of the 435 will have the right to introduce a motion of no-confidence in McCarthy. This would automatically trigger another vote to see if he can maintain his role as speaker.

Congress is already deeply divided. Democrats control the Senate, while Republicans have a slim 10-seat majority in the House of Representatives. In order to approve any law or authorize public spending, there will need to be some sort of compromise between both parties. But as the hard-right Republicans have shown their power in the House, Biden’s room to maneuver politically has narrowed even further.

Many members of the Freedom Caucus – the 21 conspiracy theorists who now effectively control McCarthy’s every move – have already threatened to hold up expanded financial and military support for Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy. And one of the most prominent rebels – Texas Congressman Chip Roy – has suggested that his faction will force the Biden administration to drastically cut federal spending when the time comes to vote for an increase in the national debt ceiling. Without such a vote passing, it would be impossible for the US government to continue borrowing funds to pay for essential public services across the country.

The United States has never in its history defaulted on its debt commitments. But given the propensity of the extremists to push their demands, it is a risk that cannot be ruled out. Especially since Speaker McCarthy ended up where he is today after giving in to a form of political blackmail. Such chaotic scenes on the House floor were never expected… and yet, they happened.

The speaker of the House usually sets the rules regarding what can be filmed in the chamber. However, since there was no speaker for more than three days following the exit of Democrat Nancy Pelosi, C-SPAN camera operators were free to film whatever they wanted. They even caught a tense moment when Representative Mike Rogers – a McCarthy ally – had to be restrained from physically assaulting Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, who at one point voted for Donald Trump to become speaker.

Ironically, despite the most pro-Trump congresspeople blocking his path to the speakership for more than 72 hours, Trump was the person who McCarthy thanked the most upon being elected. After all, he was the only person who could sway his own followers to stand down.

On his Truth Social account, Trump – who is currently seeking his party’s presidential nomination for the third time – responded to McCarthy’s gratitude: “It was my great honor.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS