WASHINGTON — Asked during a Tuesday briefing about House Republicans’ ongoing struggle to elect a speaker, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre broke into a telling grin. “We’re certainly not going to insert ourselves in what’s happening on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue,” she said, seeming to suppress a laugh as she spoke.
On the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue is the U.S. Congress, where Republicans have been in the midst of a contentious leadership fight since narrowly retaking the lower chamber in last November’s midterm elections. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who had long coveted the speakership, assumed that the position would be his, but he failed to overcome opposition from his own party in at least the initial rounds of speaker votes.
By Tuesday evening, McCarthy was dealt three embarrassing losses, but he and his allies vowed to stick it out for additional ballots.
“The @GOP is in disarray,” former top White House aide Cristóbal Alex wrote on Twitter, using an insult Republicans flung at Democrats when fights erupted between moderates and progressives.
For a president who expects to spend 2023 on making shows of bipartisanship, the Republican brouhaha offered an irresistible contrast — at least in the White House’s own view — between seasoned competence and pointless ideological combat.
“They don’t want to focus on the American people and their family,” Jean-Pierre said of congressional Republicans. “They want to focus on political division.”
Officially, the White House kept quiet about the proceedings on Capitol Hill. “The White House understands that this decision will be made by the Republican conference,” a senior administration official told Yahoo News. But President Biden’s allies see Tuesday’s tumult — the first contested speakership vote in a century — as a validation of the arguments he made throughout the fall about what he called “MAGA extremists” and their supposed unwillingness to govern.
“They thrive on chaos,” Biden said of these steadfastly pro-Trump conservatives during a September speech on the state of American democracy, describing them as a faction apart from the mainstream Republican Party.
Chaos was certainly in evidence on Tuesday, as McCarthy failed to secure the requisite majority of votes necessary to become speaker. McCarthy is himself an ally of Donald Trump, retracting the initial criticism he made of the outgoing president after the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. But the resistance to his speakership is being led by even more committed Trump supporters, such as Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who want to use the next two years to launch a series of partisan investigations into the Biden administration and the Biden family, specifically the president’s troubled son Hunter.
Meanwhile, far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, usually an ally of Gaetz, emerged as a seemingly unlikely supporter of McCarthy. “If the base only understood that 19 Republicans voting against McCarthy are playing Russian roulette with our hard earned Republican majority right now,” Greene tweeted Tuesday amid the votes. “This is the worst thing that could possibly happen.”
“It makes us look foolish,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, complained on Fox News. “If I didn't know any better, it's like the Democrats paid these people off.”
As if to press the point, the White House announced on Sunday that Biden would travel to Kentucky on Wednesday to deliver a speech on his infrastructure plan, to which Congress devoted $1.2 trillion in a bipartisan 2021 vote. “He’s willing to work with Republicans who are willing to continue to deliver for the American people,” Jean-Pierre said during Tuesday’s press briefing.
The president will be joined by Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, where he served alongside Biden for years, as well as by Mike DeWine, the popular Republican governor of Ohio. Adding to the rift in the Republican Party has been Trump, who launched blistering attacks against both McConnell and his wife, including in a New Year’s Eve missive.
For mainstream conservatives who want the Republican Party to stymie Biden’s agenda while bolstering its own 2024 prospects, Tuesday’s dysfunction was an ominous sign. “The choice is Kevin McCarthy or chaos,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned.
Adding to Tuesday’s somewhat surreal scene was the presence of George Santos, the newly elected Republican lawmaker from Long Island, who appears to have invented most of his life story. Seeing that members of the media were gathered in front of his new office in the Capitol complex, Santos promptly fled.
Later, Santos was spotted sitting alone on the House floor — yet another symbol of a rough start to the 118th Congress for Republicans.