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Did Kevin McCarthy Open the Door for Pro-Insurrectionist Republicans to Block Him as House Speaker?

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The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives was thrown into chaos Tuesday as a group of far-right lawmakers prevented GOP leader Kevin McCarthy from becoming speaker, blocking him in three rounds of voting. This is the first time in a century that the process has gone beyond the first round. Voting for a new speaker is set to resume Wednesday. McCarthy needs 218 votes to become speaker, but with a razor-thin Republican majority of 222 representatives, the roughly 20 right-wing holdouts have essentially ground congressional business to a halt until a speaker is chosen. “Exactly what they’re fighting for is sort of unclear. They only know what they’re fighting against,” says New York Times staff writer Robert Draper. We also speak with The American Prospect’s David Dayen about how Republicans are attempting to eliminate congressional worker unions.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We begin today’s show on Capitol Hill, where far-right lawmakers have blocked Kevin McCarthy’s initial attempts to become speaker of the House. In a dramatic day on Tuesday, the House held three votes to pick a new speaker. McCarthy fell increasingly short of securing the needed 218 votes, even though Republicans now hold a slim majority in the House. On the first two ballots, 19 Republicans opposed McCarthy. On the third ballot, the number of defectors increased to 20. This marks the first time since 1923 — a hundred years ago — that voting for speaker went beyond the first round. During the historic second round of votes, Republican Congressman Jim Jordan nominated Kevin McCarthy for House speaker for that historic second ballot Tuesday. And after this, Republican Matt Gaetz rose to nominate Jim Jordan instead.

REP. MATT GAETZ: I rise to nominate the most talented, hardest-working member of the Republican conference, who just gave a speech with more vision than we have ever heard from the alternative. I’m nominating Jim Jordan.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Gaetz is the subject of an ongoing Justice Department probe into allegations he was involved in sex trafficking, prostitution and statutory rape. After the third vote, the House voted to adjourn until today at noon.

CHERYL JOHNSON: The tellers agree in their tallies that the total number of votes cast is 434, of which the honorable Hakeem Jeffries of the state of New York has received 212, the honorable Kevin McCarthy of the state of California has received 202 the honorable Jim Jordan of the state of Ohio has received 20. No person having received the majority of the whole number of votes cast by surname, a speaker has not been elected.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman McCarthy said late Tuesday he has no plans to drop his bid and was inspired to fight to the finish to become House speaker after a phone call with former President Donald Trump. But what Trump actually told McCarthy was, quote, “We’ll see what happens.” Among the hard-line Republicans who say they’ll continue to vote no on McCarthy is Lauren Boebert, who spoke to reporters Tuesday.

REP. LAUREN BOEBERT: If you go to the American people and ask them if Congress is doing a good job, if they like the way things are run in Washington, D.C., you’re probably going to get a big “hell no.” We want to change the way things are done here.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Republican Congressmember Marjorie Taylor Greene openly attacked her former allies Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz and others over the speaker vote.

REP. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: I haven’t asked for one thing for my — for myself, and I’m the only Republican that has zero committees. So you would think I would be the one in there asking for something. But I haven’t done that. 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 am furious.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s unclear how long it could take for the House to pick a speaker, but until one is chosen, the House cannot conduct other business, including the swearing-in of new House members. For example, Republican Representative-elect George Santos falsely announced Tuesday he was sworn in, and later had to delete the press release. Earlier in the day, Santos sat alone as his colleagues in the busy House chamber avoided him.

Cameras showed Republican Matt Gaetz approach Democratic Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to ask if Democrats would bail out McCarthy, as McCarthy reportedly told Republicans. She told Gaetz there would be no deal.

Meanwhile, Democrats were united in their nomination of Congressmember Hakeem Jeffries as House speaker, making him the first Black lawmaker in history to lead a party in Congress and be nominated as House speaker. Jeffries actually won more votes than McCarthy in the first rounds of votes in the speaker contest. This is Democratic Congressmember Pete Aguilar.

REP. PETE AGUILAR: Today, Madam Clark, House Democrats are united.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the Republicans shaping Congress, we’re joined by Robert Draper. He is a staff writer with The New York Times and author of the new book Weapons of Mass Delusion: When the Republican Party Lost Its Mind. His recent New York Times Magazine story is headlined “Inside the Jan. 6 Committee: Power struggles, resignations and made-for-TV moments — the untold story of the most important congressional investigation in generations.”

Robert Draper, thanks so much for joining us. Can you talk about this group of far-right Republicans who have stopped McCarthy from becoming House speaker, at least at this point? You’ve written an entire book about them.

ROBERT DRAPER: Sure. I’ve written a couple, actually, about them. This is a train that’s been coming down the track for a while. It’s a far-right group, principally members of the House Freedom Caucus, who are determined to show to the sort of MAGA base, the Trump base, that still forms the backbone of the Republican Party, that they’re fighters.

And exactly what they’re fighting for is sort of unclear. They only know what they’re fighting against, which in this particular case is Kevin McCarthy, who they’ve never altogether trusted or liked. McCarthy has offered himself up as someone who will help conservatives get what they want, but he himself doesn’t possess a similar ideology, and they’re all too aware of that.

Again, it’s unclear, Amy, how this ends, but it’s been inevitable. It’s been quite apparent to those of us following what’s going on on the Hill that this sort of speaker battle was going to happen and that McCarthy was not going to get 218 votes on the first and maybe subsequent balloting.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us, individually, about these people, who both supported him — it was surprising to see Marjorie Taylor Greene —

ROBERT DRAPER: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — attacking her colleagues, who she has so often banded together with — and who they are, like Paul Gosar of Arizona.

ROBERT DRAPER: Yeah. So, you’re correct, Amy, that, you know, probably the most remarkable development in all of this has been the alliance that Marjorie Taylor Greene has forged with McCarthy, not because she’s deeply affectionate toward the guy or something, but, instead, because she believes that the Republican Party has to stand for something and has to try to accomplish certain things, and can’t do so without a speaker, and it can’t do so without a speaker who has some legislative chops, who’s been around the block, as it were.

But she finds herself in opposition to fellow members of the House Freedom Caucus, such as, you named, Paul Gosar, a far-right member of the Arizona delegation, who’s been around since the tea party days. He was elected in 2010 and has always been something of a marginal character in the House. But when the “Stop the Steal” imbroglio began following Trump’s defeat in November 2020, Gosar led the forefront of it. He was the first person to stand up with a U.S. senator and basically reject the certification of the electoral votes in his state of Arizona.

So, you have people who are natural allies who are now against each other. And it’s gotten quite personal, as you were playing before, and Greene is quite upset with her colleagues. She feels like they are doing things for their own personal benefit, that they have excluded her from that process, and that there is no endgame for them other than to get plum committee assignments.

AMY GOODMAN: And who is Kevin McCarthy?

ROBERT DRAPER: Well, McCarthy joined in 2006, I believe, and has been, you know, a very ambitious guy, climbing up the leadership chain from really the moment of his arrival. He was the House majority whip when the Republicans took power back from the Democrats following the tea party election of 2010. And it’s been evident for those of us on the Hill that McCarthy has had his eye on the speaker’s gavel for some time, and came close to getting it in 2014, failed, and now is his opportunity.

The problem with McCarthy is, as I referenced before, he doesn’t have a particular ideology. It’s unclear really what he believes in, other than his own desire to wield power. He has tried to stay close to President — to former President Trump, acting out of the belief that if Trump should oppose the Republicans, that he could really splinter the party for all time. And so he’s tried to kind of bring Trump into the fold. And that’s part of the reason why he has remained close to Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is sort of the proximate warrior on Capitol Hill to the MAGA movement. But it appears right now that McCarthy is trying to play a game of chicken with the far right.

If I were McCarthy, though, I’d be concerned, in particular, about the tepid level of support that he’s shown from Donald Trump, who spoke with him on the phone last night. McCarthy emerged from that phone conversation saying that Trump gave him his support; we have, however, not heard Trump say that himself. And I think that, you know, what Trump dislikes more than anything is losing and losers, and does not want to be associated with a loser. And if it appears that McCarthy bears the taint of someone who’s going to go down in defeat, Trump will distance himself from McCarthy very quickly. He’s not going to spend whatever is left of his political capital supporting a guy who does not stand a chance of winning.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, most of the people who were voting against McCarthy supported insurrectionists. Can you really separate Kevin McCarthy from that? Because although at the time you could tell he was opposed to what was happening on January 6th, he immediately went down to Mar-a-Lago — right? — kissed the ring of Donald Trump, and then tried to prevent an investigation into what took place. So he really is together with them. It’s hard to separate him.

ROBERT DRAPER: That’s right. At the same time, Trump recognizes that McCarthy has done everything you’ve just described, Amy, out of political calculation, not out of particular belief. You know, there’s very little evidence to suggest that Kevin McCarthy believed that the election was stolen, believed that Trump should remain in office through any and all means necessary. There is evidence, instead, to believe that McCarthy was deeply alarmed by what took place at the Capitol, as I reported in my book. He heatedly said to Trump on the phone that afternoon, “They’re effing trying to kill me.” And so, Trump knows that McCarthy’s alliance with him is one of convenience and one of political calculation, not one of unswerving loyalty.

But, I have to say, even if McCarthy were a true, die-hard loyalist, that means nothing in the world of Donald Trump. Trump is going to stay with someone who makes him look good, who supports his agenda, who’s unswervingly loyal to him, and who’s a winner. McCarthy can be all of those other things, but if it appears that he’s going to be defeated, then Trump will back away.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring into this conversation, with Robert Draper, David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect, where his recent pieces are “2023: A Year for Executive Action” and “Democrats Frittered Away the Lame-Duck Session.” His piece out today, “House GOP Tries to Cancel Congressional Staff Unions.” As this Republican-led Congress bogs down in theatrics, in the executive branch, in the Biden — let’s look at what has happened, and also what isn’t being paid attention to, David Dayen. You have, at the same time that all of this is happening, new House rules under Republican control. Can you lay out what they are?

DAVID DAYEN: Yeah. Obviously, they haven’t voted on them yet, until they vote for a speaker, but there is a rules package that has been set up. And there are many things in it, some of them just sort of ornamental — removing the security machinery to go onto the House floor, that was put in place after January 6, and things of that nature.

But one consequential thing, at least for members of the congressional staff, is that a series of unions at congressional offices, that were put in place after a resolution in May that implemented regulations of a 1995 law that allowed congressional staff to organize, the rules package attempts to eliminate those unions. There are about 10 offices that have either voted to unionize or set up an election to vote on that, on whether or not to do so. And these are all Democratic offices, about a hundred staffers.

And this is a Republican Party that talks about, you know, being newly emboldened to be for the working class. You know, people like Senator Josh Hawley have said, “We have to make the Republican Party a workers’ party.” And literally the first thing that they’re going to do after they elect a speaker is put forward a rules package to eliminate unions within their own workplace. So I think it’s an interesting contrast. And it’s not entirely clear that the rules package can even do this, and it might be subject to litigation down the road.

AMY GOODMAN: And going back to Robert Draper, in addition to your book that’s just out, Weapons of Mass Delusion: When the Republican Party Lost Its Mind, you also have a major piece in The New York Times Magazine. And in it, you talk about the January 6th committee. Now, one of the decisions of the Republican leadership, if they end up — if one of them ends up being House speaker — you know, who knows at this point? Hakeem Jeffries is the one with the most votes, although he doesn’t have the majority. You wrote “Inside the Jan. 6 Committee: Power struggles, resignations and made-for-TV moments — the untold story of the most important congressional investigation.” They will be ending that committee, although it’s ended with this last Congress. Talk about, summarize — it was a massive piece, but what we should understand about what this investigation and this committee was all about.

ROBERT DRAPER: Well, sure. I mean, I’d say, at its baseline, Amy, the January 6th committee was set up to understand how the Capitol riot took place, what elements were involved in it, in an effort to prevent any such attempts at insurrection occurring in the future. But as the hearings evolved, it became quite clear that the focus, the principal target, was the president of the United States at the time, Donald Trump, because it was believed — and the evidence was supporting this belief — that Trump was the principal actor in the insurrection, that it would not have occurred but for his deeds in the weeks leading up to and on the day of January the 6th. So, that’s the evidence that was marshaled.

Now that it has disbanded, Republicans are intimating that they’re, in essence, going to investigate the investigators, that they’re going to look into the files that the January 6th committee gathered but did not necessarily promote, in an effort to, for example, suggest that, say, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the one who was really responsible for the security failures on January the 6th. This is definitely a double-edged sword. I mean, it’s certainly true that the so-called blue team of the January 6th committee did develop a lot of information relating to security lapses that was not emphasized in the final report. At the same time, for this Republican Congress to continue to labor over the misdeeds of Donald Trump, however they wish to explain it, it’s just simply going to mean an inability to turn the page and to move away, not even so much from Donald Trump, but from a conversation about malfeasance that occurred, principally by Republicans, up to and on January the 6th. It’s not a good look for them, and I think it’s a classic case of “be careful what you wish for.”

AMY GOODMAN: And, Robert Draper, before you go, because I know you’re going up to Capitol Hill to continue interviewing people, there was an astounding moment yesterday where you saw this image of AOC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the congressmember from New York, sitting with Paul Gosar, the Arizona congressman who had tweeted out a cartoon where he murdered her. He was censured for this. If we could end our conversation with you by you talking about what you think this group that does not want McCarthy as the House speaker will represent and push forward? And do you think they will gain enormous power in this new House?

ROBERT DRAPER: Sure, Amy. Briefly, I mean, what apparently that conversation was about between Gosar and Ocasio-Cortez was that there had been intimations from Kevin McCarthy and his allies that they had secured pledges from certain Democrats at a certain point to peel away from Hakeem Jeffries and simply vote “present,” which would lower the threshold and enable McCarthy to gain more votes. And what Ocasio-Cortez was apparently telling Gosar was, “Nope, no such deal has taken place, nor will any take place.”

Should Gosar, Andy Biggs and some of the others get what they want — Matt Gaetz — what they’ll ultimately hope to get is Jim Jordan as speaker. Jordan has made clear, however, that he not only supports Kevin McCarthy, but he’s really not interested in being speaker. After all, who would? I mean, this is a very, very unruly Republican bunch, and to have to wake up every morning knowing that you’re going to be whipping votes, knowing that you’re going to try to accommodate this very, very fractious Republican conference, is a real headache. I mean, that’s why Jordan would rather be the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. It’s why Patrick McHenry, someone else who is a McCarthy ally and has been talked about as a fallback option, would rather be chairman of financial services. These guys have taken themselves out of the game, because they recognize what a fool’s pursuit it would be to try to herd the cats in this Republican conference.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jordan, of course, while he says he wants to be head of House Judiciary Committee, his past at Ohio State as wrestling coach, where he was accused by one young man after another of knowing about the sexual attacks on these young men within the wrestling team.

ROBERT DRAPER: Yeah, yeah. No, that’s right. I mean, that controversy has followed Jordan for years. It does not seem to have uprooted any support for him within the Republican Party. I don’t think that that’s a principal reason why Jordan wants to stay somewhat out of the limelight. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he rather enjoys having a lot of attention focused on him. I think it’s more that he recognizes that this Republican Party — you know, to answer your question, Amy — isn’t really sure what it wants. I mean, they have conservative principles, but what their endgame is in trying to oppose Kevin McCarthy suggests more a kind of political performance art than it does any actual purpose or any actual ideological intent.

AMY GOODMAN: And those young wrestlers who accused Congressman Jordan were accusing him of knowing about an abusive Ohio State doctor who sexually assaulted them. Robert Draper, thanks so much for being with us, author of Weapons of Mass Delusion: When the Republican Party Lost Its Mind.

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