Publicly, Kevin McCarthy has mostly maintained an assertive posture throughout his debt ceiling standoff with Joe Biden, casting himself as the adult in the room while taking petty shots at his foes. “I would bring the lunch to the White House,” McCarthy said at a press conference last week, demanding a meeting with the president. “I would make it soft food if he wants.” But behind the scenes, the House Speaker has reportedly been frustrated with the position he’s found himself in—and is pointing his finger every which way in search of a fall guy within his own caucus.
According to the New York Times, much of the speaker’s ire has of late been directed at two of his deputies: Texas’ Jodey Arrington, chair of the Budget Committee, and Louisiana’s Steve Scalise, the House majority leader. McCarthy has told colleagues he lacks confidence in Arrington, the Times reported, apparently believing him to be “incompetent” and “disloyal”—the latter because of Arrington’s reported effort to rally Republicans around Scalise as McCarthy’s bid for speaker floundered earlier this year. Scalise, meanwhile, has reportedly come to be seen by McCarthy as unreliable—“ineffective, checked out and reluctant to take a position on anything,” the Times reported.
McCarthy has denied that there was any trouble in his paradise, praising both Arrington and Scalise in a statement to the Times. “I flatly reject” reports that there is any strife among top Republicans, the speaker said. But, as the paper noted, some of that discord has spilled out into the open, with GOP officials publicly contradicting one another on various issues, including the budget. “I don’t know what he’s talking about,” McCarthy said after Arrington suggested Republicans were close to solidifying a “package of reforms” they could present to the White House last month.
The alleged friction among top Republicans is a symptom of a deeper sickness within the party, which is plagued by far-right extremists McCarthy doesn’t so much lead as he does serve. Those members, who extracted extraordinary concessions from him in exchange for the gavel, have put him in a bind: McCarthy is demanding major spending cuts from Biden, but can’t say what they should be—not only because his caucus can’t agree on a specific plan to bring to the Biden administration, but also because there may not be any plan hardline enough for some of his members, as Politico reported Monday. “They don’t have a working majority,” Democrat Dick Durbin told the outlet.
The White House—which has refused to negotiate with McCarthy until he puts forth a plan—has sought to capitalize on GOP divisions in the debt standoff, betting that House Republicans can only dig their heels in for so long. “There’s starting to be more appreciation that the full faith and credit of the United States is not a source of leverage,” an administration official told Politico.
There are concerns that centrist Democrats in the Problem Solvers Caucus could undermine Biden’s position as they engage in backchannel negotiations for a “plan B” to break the stalemate. But even that off-ramp for McCarthy would require him to marshal virtually all of his members behind it—which he seems unable to do. No doubt, that’s partly because of the incompetence and backstabbing and empty ambition that surrounds him. But this looming debt crisis is also the product of his own incompetence, backstabbing, and empty ambition. “We’re waiting for House congressional members to put forth a budget. The president did that,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters this week. “We’re waiting for…House Republican members to do the same.”