Why Kevin McCarthy’s departure could bring the House GOP one step closer to chaos

The House GOP’s ever-shrinking majority just shrank a little further—and could get smaller still. That means Republicans could soon have even less room to maneuver, with huge battles over spending bills just up ahead.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s Wednesday announcement that he’s quitting the House came as no surprise. While the ex-speaker’s eagerness to be humiliated seemed bottomless, his comments over the last few weeks made it evident that even he had a limit.

And when he goes—”at the end of this year,” he says—the Republican caucus will find itself with one fewer member. With more resignations and a critical special election in the pipeline, McCarthy’s woefully underprepared replacement as speaker, Mike Johnson, might find himself even more hamstrung than his predecessor.

At the moment, House Republicans have just 221 members, following the expulsion of George Santos last week. Democrats, meanwhile, have their full complement of 213. That means, on any given vote, Johnson can afford no more than three defections. If four Republicans bolt and Democrats remain unified, then we’d have a 217-217 deadlock—and a tie vote is the same as a loss.

When McCarthy finally makes his exit, that would take the GOP caucus down to just 220 souls, while Democrats would still be at 213. Interestingly, that wouldn’t change the math: As Inside Elections’ Jacob Rubashkin notes, four Republican desertions would still be required to kill any particular bill. The only difference is that any such legislation would lose outright, 217-216, in such an event, rather than going down to defeat in a tie.

Now, it’s important to note that Democratic ranks are also set to diminish by one in early February, when New York Rep. Brian Higgins has said he’ll resign. But even then, with a 220-to-212 split in favor of Republicans, the calculus would still remain the same for Johnson: three defectors good, four defectors bad. The latter scenario would simply mean a 216-216 standoff, which you already know is sufficient to kill a bill.

But here’s where Santos comes back into play. The special election to replace the former head of the House Con-Artist Caucus has been scheduled for Feb. 13, and Democrats have a real chance to win back that seat. If they do, then we’re back to a 220-213 edge for Republicans. By now, you know that the balance of power wouldn’t change at this juncture, because it would present the same partisan split described above. But there’s one more twist.

Another Republican, Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson, also has a resignation in the works. He’s been vague about his timeline, but we know his departure can’t take place any later than March 15, since he’s set to start a new job as president of a university on that day. That would leave Republicans with just 219 members—and that’s where things get really interesting.

Since Democrats would have 213 in their caucus at this point, Johnson could have at most two deserters on floor votes. Should just three Republicans switch sides, then we’re at a 216-all tie—and you know exactly what that means.

All of this, of course, is dependent on everyone sticking with their plans and, more than anything, Democrats actually flipping Santos’ seat. But none of this is implausible. In fact, the odds are about even: There’s little reason to think Johnson, Higgins, and especially McCarthy will change their minds, and Santos’ district is the definition of swingy.

But whatever unfolds, it all underscores just how precarious Johnson’s speakership is. McCarthy understands that better than anyone, so it’s only natural he wants nothing to do with what comes next. And that may be the first smart decision he’s ever made.

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