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As McCarthy falls short on speakership, can anyone govern the House GOP?

After watching a day of harsh rhetoric, backstage maneuvering and brinkmanship politics, I no longer think the question is why Kevin McCarthy couldn’t round up the 218 votes needed to become House speaker.

The question, and I say this without snark or partisanship, is whether House Republicans can govern at all.

When they took control yesterday, rather than addressing the country’s problems, the GOP presented a portrait of dysfunction, squabbling over personal grievances rather than routinely anointing its leader as the contest went to multiple ballots for the first time in 100 years.

What remained murky is whether the conservative rebels could get to yes no matter what concessions the California congressman offered, including handing his critics a loaded pistol by agreeing that any five members could topple him simply by requesting a no-confidence vote. So deep was their anger at McCarthy, or what he represents, that they were willing to paralyze the House on their opening day – since no other business can be done until there is a speaker. Maybe they want a weak and limping speaker, since that increases their own leverage (and that of every other five-member group with a beef).

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Look, leadership fights are messy and filled with horse-trading. What makes this one especially bizarre is that the distant second-place finisher – Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan – is a McCarthy supporter who announced his intent to vote for McCarthy.

So how do you beat someone with no one? 

The current Republican leader has been privately asking his colleagues, “If not me, who?” Having lost 19 conservative votes on the second ballot, he is now pursuing a wear-’em-down strategy that may be his only remaining option.

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Keep in mind that the last two House Republican leaders also eventually threw up their hands at the intransigence of the party’s right wing. John Boehner gave up the speaker’s job after a series of revolts, and Paul Ryan chose not to seek reelection rather than keep fighting the MAGA faction that was loyal to Donald Trump.

McCarthy’s frustration was clear in widely reported closed-door comments: “I earned this job. We earned this majority, and G—–mit we are going to win it today.”

He told reporters that his conservative critics “are trying to fight for their own personal items instead of fight for the country.”

Let’s say that McCarthy, a backslapping lawmaker who focuses on building relationships, played his cards wrong. He chided Trump right after the Jan. 6 riot, but before long was visiting the former president at Mar-a-Lago, needing him as an ally for the eventual speakership fight. 

And yet even though Trump has endorsed McCarthy and made calls on his behalf, that hasn’t moved the needle among the dissidents.

McCarthy has openly courted Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the chamber’s most flamboyant conservatives, promising to return the committee assignments that Democrats had stripped from her.

Greene said yesterday she hasn’t asked for anything, “but I find out that it’s my Freedom Caucus colleagues and my supposed friends that went and did that, and they asked nothing for me. Nothing. That’s what I found out in there. I’m furious.”

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Another anti-McCarthy voice, Lauren Boebert, emerged from a morning meeting in which she said without shouting that McCarthy’s case was “bull****” and told reporters, “Here we are being sworn at instead of being sworn in.”

McCarthy has also remained silent about George Santos, who won a House seat despite fabricating most of his resume, obviously figuring he needed the newcomer’s vote since he can lose no more than four defectors.

Some pundits thought the GOP whip, Steve Scalise, might emerge as a compromise choice. But Scalise kicked off the third round of voting by nominating McCarthy.

Democrats, who fell into line to unanimously support their minority leader, Hakeem Jeffries, were clearly enjoying the other party’s discomfort. But some of the harshest language came from conservatives who are upset with the rebels.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, on Fox News, called the dissidents “petty” and acting like narcissists who “believe that your opinion is so much more important than everyone else’s and you’ll keep going and you’ll threaten to tear down the team just because of your own sense of self-importance.”

He added: “It makes us look foolish. If I didn’t know any better, it’s like the Democrats paid these people off.”

It would be one thing if two Republican factions were battling over some grand matter of principle, such as a balanced budget or securing the border. But it’s all about personal fiefdoms and demands that seem impenetrable from the outside — and perhaps they just view Kevin as the ultimate swamp creature.

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You could sense a shift in the punditry late in the day, as McCarthy fell one more vote short on the third ballot, even though he had 202 to Jordan’s 20 (and Jordan is backing him). There was chatter that some McCarthy supporters would tell him that as much as they support him, he can’t get to 218 and they need someone who can.

There’s also the optical issue of why McCarthy, with all his built-in advantages, couldn’t wheel and deal his way to co-opting the rebels.

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But what exactly do the dissidents stand for, and do they keep moving the goalposts? Freedom Caucus members have now demanded the ability to set up their own committees, pick their own members and bring their own litigation – things that no speaker would ever accept.

At this point, I have no greater ability to divine where this is going than anyone else. What I do know is that this is a debacle for the Republicans that raises serious questions about who ultimately will be in charge. 

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