House Chaos: Why the Republicans Can't Choose a Speaker

by Perry Bacon Jr. /  / Updated 

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House Republicans are again looking divided and in disarray, having forced out their sitting speaker, then watched the man who was expected to replace him suddenly pull out of the running for the job on Thursday.

The resignation of House Speaker John Boehner two weeks ago and California Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s inability to become his successor fits the broader pattern of a Republican Party constantly divided between its establishment and Tea Party wings and frequently in self-inflicted political messes.

This chaos is nothing new for House Republicans who spent the last four years repeatedly struggling to find the votes to raise the federal debt limit or approve bills to fund the federal government as the Tea Party wing refused any compromises with President Obama and often complained about GOP leadership.

US Representative Kevin McCarthy speaks following the Republican nomination election for House speaker in the Longworth House Office Building on October 8, 2015 in Washington, DC.MANDEL NGAN / AFP - Getty Images

That Republicans are having trouble finding a new speaker is not all that surprising considering the last several years.

Asked Thursday by the conservative National Review if the House is “governable,” McCarthy said, “I don’t know. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom.”

Boehner finally decided to give up the job last month, after enduring more than four years of protracted battles to complete basic tasks like funding the government, all while his fellow Republicans complained he wasn’t savvy or tough enough to force through the party's agenda.

The man that many Republicans want to replace Boehner, House Ways and Means Chair Paul Ryan, has already said he won’t take the job. Ryan is a policy wonk, who wants to enact major legislation overhauling the tax code, Medicare and Social Security. That was the job of House Speakers in the past, but not now.

Being the Speaker of the House in 2015 means dealing with President Obama, who disagrees with Republicans on nearly issue, and the House Freedom Caucus, a band of very-conservative members who view any bill that Obama could sign as suspect and nearly every Republican leader as part of the hated establishment. McCarthy conceded Thursday he didn’t have the support of enough Republicans once the Freedom Caucus said it would not back him.

Boehner has said he will remain as speaker until late October and is willing to serve after that time if the GOP can’t choose a leader. They are likely to find one, as a number of Republicans want to hold the job, and new candidates won’t have the taint of having served as Boehner’s No. 2, which hurt McCarthy’s bid.

But the last four years suggest the best day of the new speaker’s tenure will be the day he takes the job. The divides between the wings of the party, and Obama’s presence in the Oval Office, will make it a struggle for a House speaker to satisfy the Republican Party while at the same time executing the tasks of the job, like getting the debt ceiling raised.

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