In 297 BC, King Pyrrhus of Epirus won a decisive victory against the Roman army, and with it, realized he would ultimately lose the war. At the battle of Asculum, the king defeated his enemy but lost so many of his key commanders and soldiers that his ability to continue to wage war was all but destroyed. Plutarch writes that upon surveying the battlefield, he lamented, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” As is written in Ecclesiastes, “there is no new thing under the sun.” And it seems that for prospective Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy history is about to repeat itself.
A Question of Leverage
So far, 14 GOP reps have either stated that they would not support McCarthy’s leadership or are demanding a significant number of concessions in return for their all-important vote. The chance of a first-round failure is sizeable and will likely become rich fodder for a negative Democrat narrative. And while the seeker of the gavel may win further down the line, what will it cost him?
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) – who challenged McCarthy for the position – is the leading voice of opposition and has vowed not to support the bid. His stance being that without Democrat backing, the vote fails, but with it, he loses GOP confidence. “That would push people off to say, ‘look, we don’t want someone who’s a compromised speaker. We want someone who’s going to be a Republican speaker,'” Biggs said.
Among the concessions made includes allowing a “vacate the Chair” motion at the behest of five Republican lawmakers and a commitment to grant conservatives more representation on committees. McCarthy wrote: “I will use my selections on key panels to ensure they more closely reflect the ideological makeup of our conference, and will advocate for the same when it comes to the membership of standing committees. This will facilitate greater scrutiny of bills from the start so they stand a greater chance of passing in the end.”
It is beginning to appear, however, that this might not be enough to satisfy the disgruntled lawmakers in his own party.
The Horse Trade Awaits
Should McCarthy lose the first-round vote of all House members, subsequent ballots can be held either today or under a proposed schedule. Democrats will almost certainly cast their votes for NY Rep. Hakeem Jefferies, and at least 200 Republicans have indicated their support for McCarthy, but he’s still short of the 218 majority required.
No speakership election has gone to a second round since 1923. We can expect a great deal of horse trading to take place behind closed doors before the House is adjourned for the day. However, any late-stage deals will be bad optics for the California Republican, with political enemies preparing to cast whomever ultimately wins as in thrall to the “extremist” MAGA contingent.
Leslie Dach, a senior adviser to the Democratic-aligned Congressional Integrity Project, warned that “In some ways, win or lose, it doesn’t matter… I think the die on the next two years has been cast by giving these people the power and the podium.” She continues:
“The real show is going to be these empowered, extreme MAGA types, Every day that they are on a committee, every day they are on television, is a bad day for the entire Republican Party.”
Does McCarthy Face a No Win Situation?
Like King Pyrrhus, McCarthy is on the verge of a victory that could cost him dearly. Even if he prevails, the concessions, the deals, and the optics may already be the root cause of an embattled leadership rife with turmoil. Grand schemes for investigations and accountability will be held hostage to those who finally offer tentative support – hardly the dynamo that McCarthy and his fellow Republicans promised would lead them to the ultimate battle in 2024. A situation the Hellenic king understood all too well.
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