Last week’s GOP House leadership elections delivered to Tea Party conservatives, who knocked off former Majority Leader Eric Cantor—well, absolutely nothing. They were totally shut out. Despite an uprising intended to send a message to Washington and knock off a man whom grassroots activists consider a Wall Street-friendly establishment phony, the new leadership team is probably a notch more liberal than it was before Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) succeeded Cantor (R-Va.) as majority leader.
I’ve already catalogued the reasons why things turned out this way for far-right conservatives (short answer: ineptitude). But it’s worth pointing out that this failure, and the GOP’s unwillingness to ratify Cantor’s loss by opening its leadership ranks to a bona fide Tea Partier, probably doesn’t sit well. And while the House Tea Party crowd has yet to display an ability to elect so much as a dogcatcher, it has amply demonstrated that it is capable of steering events in the House. As when it forced a government shutdown last year.
Looking ahead to what the House must tackle this summer, the astute political observer will note that it’s a laundry list of right-wing bugaboos. There’s the revenue shortfall in the highway trust fund—the only thing less popular than government infrastructure spending is probably the gas tax increase being floated to pay for it. There’s the need to renew the Export-Import Bank’s charter, which expires in September—killing the Ex-Im Bank has recently become a Tea Party cause célèbre. Biggest of all, there’s the need to extend funding for the federal government after current funding runs out on Sept. 30, a deadline some conservatives think can be used as leverage to kill the new EPA carbon regulations.
These would be knotty issues under any circumstances, but they’ll be especially difficult in light of the orneriness of House right-wingers and the lack of respect they’ve been accorded by the still-regnant GOP establishment (a tension that will increase further if Tea Party insurgent Chris McDaniels beats Republican Senator Thad Cochran in Mississippi’s runoff primary on Tuesday). Sure enough, they’re already issuing veiled threats. “If we see them not govern the way we hope they will, I guarantee there will be conversations about making changes,” Representative Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) told the Wall Street Journal.
This is undoubtedly why McCarthy announced on Fox News Sunday that he would not support reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, despite the business community’s desire that he do so. “I think Ex-Im Bank is … something government does not have to be involved in,” he said. “The private sector can do it.” That is a marked contrast to Cantor, a staunch supporter of the bank, and clearly an effort by McCarthy to appease the restive faction of right-wingers unhappy about his ascension.
If all it takes to placate them is killing off the Ex-Im Bank, then the Tea Party is a pretty cheap date. More likely, their demands will be steeper, which means we’ll be in for a rocky next few months. When McCarthy was House whip, he often struggled to line up votes for Republican bills. That task may become even harder. Angry right-wingers will have the leverage of potentially withholding their support in the next round of leadership elections in November. It’s hard to believe that the GOP would be foolish enough to force a shutdown a month before the midterm elections. But it’s easy enough to imagine how that scenario could unfold. So while McCarthy may have trouble leading his party, at least he seems aware of the danger looming ahead.