As the Democrats’ chances to hold the House majority narrow, the floodgates for Kevin McCarthy’s own personal hell are about to open. A thin majority will mean Mr McCarthy is more of a prisoner to archconservatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert (who looks increasingly more likely to win her race in Colorado’s 3rd district).
To get a better idea of what’s going to happen for House Republicans, The Independent spoke with Brendan Buck. Mr Buck is familiar with the internal GOP strife as he served as Speaker John Boehner’s press secretary and a counsellor to Speaker Paul Ryan, during which both men had to manage cantankerous right-wing factions.
Mr Buck quickly diagnosed the disease that caused Republicans to have a less-than-stellar night.
“We have an abortion problem,” he said. “Our party’s position on this issue is out of step with the majority of the country and for a lot of voters is something that’s fired a lot of passion. And we saw that in the turnout was just much higher for Democrats than than we thought.”
Mr Buck said that abortion is less of a long-term problem because “the because the policy is going to sort itself out over the next several years.” But he said that the GOP has a “brand problem”. While he said former president Donald Trump is a problem, echoing his former boss Mr Ryan, it goes much deeper than that.
“And even though there was a lot of frustration with the direction of the country, they didn’t think Republicans were a safe place to go to steady the ship,” he said of midterm voters. “And that should cause us to take stock of how we talk about ourselves and how we present ourselves and what we’re – what our principles are. I don’t actually expect a whole lot of that reflection to take place.”
And that’s just the beginning. Now Mr McCarthy has to actually lead the Republican conference in the House if he wins the majority.
“This is an almost impossible task,” he said. “You can largely throw any type of legislative agenda out the window, and if you’re looking at it in the positive way.”
While he admits that a Republican House with a Democrat Senate with a Democratic president – something that Mr Boehner had to manage from 2011 to 2015 when he abruptly resigned – and there were not going to be overlapping priorities, a small majority makes it worse. But where Mr Boehner and Mr Ryan had to deal with the Tea Party movement and the House Freedom Caucus, the new breed of far-right conservatives might complicate these processes.
“But there are still some basic things you’re supposed to do as a legislative body that are going to be increasingly difficult,” he said. “You’re going to start with having almost no shot at passing a budget.”
As a result, Republicans will likely not be able to pass their version of a budget, which in turn gives Democrats leverage.
“And then you’re gonna go into bipartisan negotiations on must pass bills like money for the government, like a debt limit increase, with Democrats having incredible leverage, because they know that Republicans are ‘in charge,’ but will never come close to having enough votes on their own to pass something,” Mr Buck said.
“So Republicans talk about using a debt limit to get something out of Democrats, I think the situation is gonna be quite reverse. They’re gonna have to raise the debt limit. They’re probably gonna have to give Democrats lots of stuff in the process. They’re gonna have to help do it.”
The one thing that might change, Mr Buck said, was that Republicans will probably ramp up investigations into the Biden administration and President Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
“And you win the house by one seat, you get all those committees, you get all those gavels you get all that back and get all those, that budget to do oversight investigations, and they’ll continue to do that,” he said.
While he said that he thinks Mr McCarthy is the most likely House speaker, Mr McCarthy is going to have little control of what the chairmen of committees want to do. Case in point, Mr Boehner once called Jim Jordan, who is slated to be Judiciary Committee chairman, “a legislative terrorist.”
“And if Jim Jordan wants to hold a hearing on Hunter Biden for an entire week, and it makes Republicans look kooky, I don’t think the speaker is going to be in any real position to tell him not to,” Mr Buck said. “I think it will be very aggressive and I don’t think that there’s going to be much chance to rein it in.”
But a small Republican governing majority will also have to grapple with a Trump candidacy, especially as the former president prepares to make an announcement for a third run on Tuesday.
“Trump has incredible influence. And it could take just a couple members being convinced that Kevin or somebody else isn't the right person. And it could be typically a game changer,” he said.
Mr Buck noted that when Mr Trump was president during Mr Ryan’s first two years, he had a vested interest in not defaulting on the debt ceiling.
“He had skin in the game incentive for us to get across the finish line to make sure that we didn't default on the debt,” he said. “We obviously had a government shutdown at one point, but we avoided several because he realized they were bad. Right when he's running for president. I think he would have no problems. If there was a default on the debt.”