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Business News/ Politics / Rebellion That Took Down McCarthy Was More Than a Decade in the Making
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Rebellion That Took Down McCarthy Was More Than a Decade in the Making

wsj

The ouster was the latest act in a rebellion among conservative lawmakers and voters unfolding for 13 years that has promoted and discarded the past three Republican speakers.

Former speakers Paul Ryan, saluting, and John Boehner were also driven from the podium in part by hard-line conservatives who demanded big spending cuts when they lacked total power. Premium
Former speakers Paul Ryan, saluting, and John Boehner were also driven from the podium in part by hard-line conservatives who demanded big spending cuts when they lacked total power.

The vote to oust Kevin McCarthy as House speaker took only about an hour. But it was just the latest act in a rebellion among conservative lawmakers and voters that has been unfolding for 13 years—one that has promoted and then discarded the past three Republican speakers.

The tea party revolt of 2010, which gave Republicans a House majority and set McCarthy on his path to power, was fueled by voter anger at government bailouts after the financial crisis and at then-President Barack Obama’s healthcare program. But it also gave early hints of the populist impulses and eagerness to discard political norms that later gave rise to President Donald Trump.

On Tuesday, it gave a small number of Republicans license to break from the most of their GOP colleagues and take the exceptional step of unseating the House speaker, a first in American history.

The tea party movement aimed to bring new accountability to the federal government and its spending habits. But with that has come a question for today’s GOP: Can anyone lead this party in Congress?

“Populism has a lot to do with emboldening these members and watching Donald Trump throw away the guard rails of government to have a devil-may-care approach, to create chaos without a plan,’’ said Ron Bonjean, a former Republican congressional aide who led communications for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

McCarthy, in a sober press conference Tuesday night, made a similar argument, saying those who had ousted him hours earlier were poseurs for voting against the budget cuts, border-security measures and other policies that they had said they wanted and that he had brought to them.

“They don’t get to say they’re conservative because they’re angry and they’re chaotic. That’s not the party I belong to," McCarthy said. “They are not conservatives, and they do not have the right to have the title."

Like the two prior Republican speakers, John Boehner (Ohio) and Paul Ryan (Wis.), McCarthy was driven from the podium in part by hard-line conservatives who believed that they could demand big spending cuts when they didn’t control all the levers of power in Washington.

Most immediately, the dissidents in his party were angry that McCarthy had put legislation on the floor, which passed with more Democratic than Republican votes, that ended a budget stalemate and extended funding for the government through mid-November, avoiding a government shutdown. Earlier, he had angered conservatives by striking a deal to raise the government’s borrowing limit in a deal with Democrats.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.), who led the rebellion against McCarthy, said that those deals continued an unprincipled tradition of forcing lawmakers to vote on funding for many federal departments at once, depriving them of the ability to consider the merits of individual programs. McCarthy he said, would make budget votes “just a sideshow, just a puppet show, just something to keep the hamsters on the hamster wheel’’ as party leaders “centralize power with the lobbyists and special interests.’’

“Each time our majority has had the chance to fight for bold, lasting change for the American people, leadership folded and passed measures with more Democrat support than Republican,’’ Rep. Eli Crane (R., Ariz.), who also voted against McCarthy, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

In 2015, Boehner gave up his gavel under pressure from conservatives just after engineering a deal with the Democratic Obama administration to raise the nation’s borrowing limit and passing a federal budget. It passed in the House with more Democratic than Republican votes, angering the most conservative members.

Three years later, in 2018, Ryan also said he would leave Congress rather than run again. He was acting amid signs that Republicans were likely to lose control of the House that year in a backlash to the Trump presidency, but also in response to the challenge of managing the GOP conference with Trump as head of the party.

His decision stripped the Republican Party of its most vocal advocate for overhauling Social Security and Medicare, the two biggest federal spending programs, which had long been targeted by conservatives eager to rein in deficits.

Boehner had urged his GOP colleagues to recognize the limits of their powers when Democrats held the White House and, during part of his tenure, the Senate—the same situation McCarthy faced this year.

“The number of times John Boehner referred to the House as one-half of one-third of government—he didn’t say it one time, he said it 30 times,’’ said Douglas Heye, a former aide to Republican Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader for much of Boehner’s time as speaker. “His point was about not overestimating the leverage you have.’’

Some conservatives, including those in a loose group of hard-right members known as the Freedom Caucus, expect leaders to deliver too much today, given their limited power, Bonjean said.

He added that there was “a strong element in the Freedom Caucus that lives in its own metaverse…while the rest of Congress is operating in the reality of divided government. It’s the fantasy world of severe budget cuts, major funding for the border, no funding for Ukraine and the elimination of cabinet departments’’—all of which most Democrats oppose.

Today, candidates for the Republican presidential nomination are calling for many of those same things, which become more realistic if the next election brings Republican victories. But Trump has argued against cutting “a single penny’’ from Social Security and Medicare, and few candidates have put forward proposals to limit the big spending programs—which means that significant budget cuts must come from discretionary programs, many of which Democrats and some Republicans support.

Tuesday’s vote marked the end not just of McCarthy’s career as a power broker but of a wider set of GOP lawmakers who were once considered its future. Together, McCarthy, Ryan and Cantor were dubbed the “Young Guns’’ and were united by their push for fiscal restraint, among other stances.

McCarthy recruited many of the GOP candidates who won House seats in 2010. Ryan was the policy architect, and Cantor the inside-the-House strategist. The three laid out their vision in a book. On the cover, they stood together on a balcony in Congress, the Washington monument peeking up over Ryan’s shoulder.

In a stunning fall from power, Cantor was unexpectedly defeated by a tea party-aligned candidate in his 2014 Republican primary. Ryan later gave up his House seat, and McCarthy has been stripped of the speaker’s post by some in his own party.

Asked to reflect on why the “Young Guns’’ have been pushed aside, McCarthy on Tuesday said his opponents within the party weren’t true conservatives. He also noted: “We’re not so young any more.’’

Write to Aaron Zitner at aaron.zitner@wsj.com

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