When Rep. Schuyler Colfax (R-IN) served as speaker of the House for two terms during the Civil War, he said upon taking the gavel he would “come to this chair to administer rules, but not as a partisan.”
Sadly, that sentiment is laughable today. Now, speakers are highly partisan players who push their own agenda and, with the aptly named aides known as “whips,” keep party opponents in line through force (or sometimes bribery).
Often, the speaker speaks softly and carries a big gavel. Think Republican Reps. John Boehner of Ohio and Denny Hastert of Illinois. Others, though, have been larger-than-life figures, like Democratic Rep. Thomas “Tip” O’Neill of Massachusetts and Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
Usually when the House changes hands, the minority leader from the previous Congress is elected speaker. But the last time the GOP had the opportunity to man the position, when Boehner stepped down, they elected Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Needless to say, that did not work out well.
“People really don’t like Paul Ryan. But why?” CNN wrote in April 2017. That was just a few months after he took the position, making him the third in line of presidential succession.
“Ryan’s approval rating of 29% is lower than the approval ratings for John Boehner (36%), Nancy Pelosi (35%) and Newt Gingrich (43%), measured shortly after each of their terms as Speaker of the House began,” a Pew Research poll found.
The clear frontrunner for the position ought to be Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the current minority leader in the House. But all that changed when the expected red wave turned out to be a pink trickle.
“Look, we were told we were going to have an incredible, incredible wave,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said last week on an online streaming show.
“If that would have been the case, you would say, ‘Well, OK, Kevin is the presumptive Republican nominee for speaker. But I think we need to have a serious discussion,'” he said.
McCarthy has been on the cusp of holding the gavel before. He was poised to take the slot in 2015 until there was backlash from the party’s conservative flank and Ryan slipped in.
He might face the same headwinds this time around — plus, he has to juggle the alliances of members loyal to Donald Trump, who lost big in the midterm elections, and those who want to move away from the unpopular former president.
“Earning the majority is only the beginning,” McCarthy wrote Wednesday in a letter to colleagues, in which he asked for their support. He promised to be a “listener” and to strive to “build consensus from the bottom-up rather than commanding the agenda from the top-down.”
“We have ended one-party Democrat rule in Washington by effectively prosecuting the case against their failed policies while detailing our plan for a new direction with the Commitment to America,” McCarthy wrote. “Even so, I trust you know that earning the majority is only the beginning. Now, we will be measured by what we do with our majority. Now, the real work begins.”
At a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill on Monday night, McCarthy got a standing ovation, CNN reported. But he then “faced tough questions and complaints from his members who were disappointed in Republicans’ performance in this year’s midterms.”
Biggs, who was endorsed by Trump, on Monday announced he would challenge McCarthy.
“We have a new paradigm here, and I think the country wants a different direction from the House of Representatives. And it’s a new world, and, yes, I’m going to be nominated tomorrow to — to the position of Speaker of the House,” Biggs said on Newsmax on Monday night.
He said on the conservative streaming program “The Absolute Truth with Emerald Robinson” that the GOP caucus should have a “good discussion” on whether McCarthy is worthy.
“I don’t understand why this is just a foregone conclusion,” Briggs said. “I think we need to have a real discussion and see how people respond to the ultimate results of this election and get a feel for his agenda and what he thinks he’s going to accomplish.”
Another Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, was blunt: “I have personally stated that Kevin McCarthy has not done anything to earn my vote.”
“There’s many times where we have come to … the minority leader over the last two years and asked him to fight on various opportunities and various issues and I have not seen the demonstrated fight that we’re looking for, for those who would aspire to lead us,” Good said on NBC last week. “And so I expect there would be a challenge to him as a speaker candidate.”
But yet another Freedom Caucus member, Texas Rep. Troy Nehls, says it’s all over but the shouting.
“Kevin McCarthy will be the speaker of the House. It’s done. It’s a done deal,” Nehls told USA Today. “Let’s just move forward.”
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
Joseph Curl has covered politics for 35 years, including 12 years as White House correspondent for a national newspaper. He was also the a.m. editor of the Drudge Report for four years. Send tips to [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @josephcurl.