Some days, Speaker Kevin McCarthy must look out over his House conference in awe and think: Are you maniacs trying to lose us the majority?
Thursday may well have been one of those days, as hard-right crusaders larded up the National Defense Authorization Act with divisive, culture-warring amendments taking aim at abortion access, transgender medical care and diversity training. The annual N.D.A.A. usually garners solid bipartisan support, passing without excessive turbulence for the past 60 years. Last week, the House Freedom Caucus and its allies labored to insert more poison pills into the package than a back-alley fentanyl mill. After much drama, and much futile pleading by Mr. McCarthy with his right flank, the House passed the bill Friday, 219-210, on a mostly party-line vote.
Rest assured, the spectacle is far from over.
The odds of the bill’s extreme measures passing muster with the Democratic Senate and White House are worse than Mike Pence’s odds of winning the presidency next year. So, less than zero. But House conservatives aren’t aiming to make serious policy gains here — at least, not the ones who understand how a divided government works. They are looking to make trouble, to prove they are loud, uncompromising fighters for the conservative cause. They are also looking to make a point, one directed in no small part at Mr. McCarthy, with whom they remain spitting mad over the debt-ceiling deal he negotiated with Democrats in May. And if they need to imperil their nascent majority to make that point, then so be it. Life is full of difficult trade-offs.
Mr. McCarthy’s debt-deal machinations this spring won plaudits from many political watchers: What leadership skill! Maybe we underestimated him! Maybe he really can keep his conference in line! But his hard-liners raged that he had sold them out and promptly committed to making the House as dysfunctional as possible, even if it meant bogging down their own team’s policy goals. Their hostage-taking and acting-out have been a warning to Mr. McCarthy: Fool us once, and we’ll turn this chamber into a do-nothing freak show just to teach you a lesson. Try to fool us twice, and things will get really dark and weird.
This purity-over-progress approach isn’t just making life awkward for the speaker. It is making the entire Republican conference look like a pack of obstructionist zealots. This may play well in deep-MAGA districts, but not so much in battleground areas. Those are, admittedly, increasingly rare. But with a majority this scrawny, House conservatives are playing with fire. All Democrats need to do is flip a handful of seats to snatch the gavel from Mr. McCarthy’s hand. They could, say, claw back some of the ground unexpectedly lost to Republicans in New York in the midterms (starting with George Santos’s district). And they could pick up a seat or two thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act that may lead to various Southern states redrawing their congressional districts to address sketchy gerrymandering. (Alabama has already been given its marching orders.)
Even if Republicans hold on to the House — where, to be fair, a certain level of crazy has come to be expected — the wingers’ shenanigans are doing nothing to help the party’s brand. Many, many Americans are weary of political chaos and performative jerkiness. And many are particular tired of it on the issue of abortion, which drew key numbers of swing voters to Democrats in last year’s midterms. But time and again, Mr. McCarthy’s troops seem dead set on signaling that the G.O.P. is a pack of bomb-throwing fringe-dwellers actively trying not to govern. Swing voters aren’t generally all that keen on posturing, do-nothing Congresses, either.
Some Republican House members are cheesed off over these political games. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, for instance, was overheard Thursday dropping all kinds of colorful language, including an “f” bomb or two, about people being forced to vote on the abortion amendment, according to Politico. Though Ms. Mace did not bother abbreviating her pejorative. Nor, it should be noted, did she risk voting against the offending amendment, much less the overall bill. “It’s not going to pass the Senate anyway; it doesn’t matter,” she told The Hill.
It doesn’t matter. Well, except that, going forward, Ms. Mace can expect the situation to get so much worse. However much blood and tears get shed in passing the N.D.A.A., they are nothing compared to the carnage anticipated in the coming cage match over funding the government. Already, the hard-liners have made clear that they are going to cause as much trouble as possible in pursuit of their outside-the-mainstream aims. In protest of the debt deal, a pack of conservatives ground action on the House floor to a halt for several days in June while lobbying (or, if you prefer, blackmailing) the speaker to give them more power — including more leeway to slash spending beyond the levels set in the debt-ceiling agreement. With the conservative knife at his throat, Mr. McCarthy has been allowing the conference to move ahead with appropriations proposals that do just that.
Ramping up the drama, a passel of conservative members sent a letter to Mr. McCarthy last week, laying out their conditions, including much lower spending levels, for funding the government. Spoiler alert: None were aimed at making the process easier or more efficient.
But, after getting crosswise with his wingers on the debt deal, the speaker now seems to have retreated back into a policy of appeasement. This bodes ill for keeping the government running smoothly in the coming months — and for any future legislative efforts.
There is no point in feeling sorry for Mr. McCarthy. He’s a political creature. Coming into this job, he knew the risks of negotiating with, and bowing to, ideological terrorists. And he was apparently cool with that. His party is earning whatever electoral comeuppance it gets. But it is shameful that the rest of America may wind up forced to pay a price as well.
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Michelle Cottle is a member of the Times editorial board, focusing on U.S. politics. She has covered Washington and politics since the Clinton administration. @mcottle
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