Staff throughout the West Wing wouldn’t cop to watching live coverage of Rep. Kevin McCarthy failing to get enough votes to become speaker of the House. But, to a person, they were more than aware of the fiasco that was unfolding on the House floor throughout the day, and on the TV sets in practically every office.
At Tuesday’s briefing, the first of the year, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre refused to comment on the speaker’s election, demurely batting away several questions about McCarthy’s humiliation and the new House GOP’s majority appearing to be every bit the chaos caucus many feared.
But make no mistake: this administration is about as distraught over all this as a flock of vultures happening upon a freshly killed gazelle. For whatever headaches a Republican-controlled House will create for President Joe Biden through investigations and its ability to control the floor, the disorder and rancor likely to characterize the new GOP majority, administration aides believe, will benefit the president politically.
Administration aides are confident that the president, by focusing on governing and working in a bipartisan manner, is delivering what the public wants — and that Republicans, as long as they’re continually bogged down by intra-party fights, are not.
“The Republican Party is almost non-functional right now,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas). “They can’t even agree on who should lead them. It’s not just a matter for the Republicans in Congress. It affects the whole country, and we can't even take a vote on anything else until they decide who the speaker is.”
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), who contemplated a Snickers bar dinner if voting ran into the late evening, marveled at the absurdity of it all as McCarthy failed to pick up more votes. He quipped that Republicans “should probably nominate Bill Murray at this point.”
“I think we’re kind of enjoying watching this. There's something about it. It's interesting,” he said.
While countless House Democrats spent much of the day reveling in the disarray across the aisle, the White House presented more of a straight face, at least publicly. But the administration is wasting no time focusing the country’s attention on this contrast, even if Biden is presenting it implicitly — not by hammering Republicans as extreme but by demonstrating his own ability to deliver on bipartisan legislation.
“Based on what is going on today, their ability to govern and pass legislation on their own, I think is tenuous at best,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “When you bend everything to an ideological position, as opposed to the work of Congress, this is what you end up with.”
Biden’s first big event of the year Wednesday, a trip to Kentucky to highlight a long-sought bridge repair alongside Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, will typify his approach over the year ahead: focusing on the increasingly tangible benefits from the bipartisan 2021 infrastructure overhaul and last year’s bills to boost semiconductor manufacturing, lower drug costs and hasten the transition to electric vehicles and renewable energy. Two border-state governors, Kentucky Democrat Andy Beshear and Ohio Republican Mike DeWine, will also attend the event, allowing Biden to underline the bipartisan nature of the law responsible for fixing the Brent Spence Bridge.
And on Friday, the president will mark the two-year anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection with a speech at the White House. The occasion will provide another chance to articulate a view about the sanctity of American democracy — while reminding the country which party was responsible.
Jean-Pierre wouldn’t say whether this week’s presidential events were orchestrated with an eye on the anticipated messy floor vote in the House, but her emphasis on the bipartisan nature of the work Biden and McConnell planned to highlight was not subtle.
“We can do big profound things for the country when we work together,” she said.
But behind the bromides, there was some bubbling concern about the chaos unfolding on the House floor.
Staffers who spoke more candidly, on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that bipartisan legislation will be more difficult with Republicans controlling the House, however narrow and fractious their majority. Debt ceiling fights become even trickier when there is no order at all.
That said, some aides remain cautiously optimistic that some GOP lawmakers from more competitive districts will be incentivized to work across the aisle. Deputy press secretary Andrew Bates wrote in a post-election bulletin to reporters that the House Republicans who voted for the president’s infrastructure law in 2021 all won reelection in November.
The president and his aides, in ways public and private, will continue to brand the GOP by highlighting the behavior of its more extreme voices — the “MAGA Republicans,” as Biden has labeled them — while still reaching out to Republicans who might work more constructively with Democrats, White House staffers said. Part of that effort, they noted, will include reminding Republicans of the popularity of Biden’s policy achievements.
If House Republicans follow through on promises to roll-back elements of the Inflation Reduction Act and weaken remaining abortion protections, the White House is confident that those efforts will benefit Democrats politically, not to mention be blocked by a Democrat-controlled Senate.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of the hard-liners refusing to back McCarthy, dismissed such actions as “messaging bills” during a press conference Tuesday. And, in a comment sure to be clipped and saved by the White House press shop, belittled the coming GOP investigations of Hunter Biden and other matters as “theater pretending to be oversight.”
And there is no immediate threat of a government shutdown after last month’s passage of a $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package, an achievement propelled in large part by Senate Republicans who foresaw the coming chaos of a GOP-controlled House. In fact, as McCarthy struggled to secure the speaker’s gavel Tuesday, some Senate Republicans expressed vindication about having passed the bipartisan legislation last year, spiking the football on House Republicans harder than anyone at the White House did.
“I’ve been told you shouldn’t vote for the $1.7 trillion spending bill because the House is Republican, they’ll make it better,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “I don’t think that theory is holding up too well.”