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New Republican House agenda depends on ‘the timid twenty’

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)
Greg Nash
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) holds his weekly on-camera press conference in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, January 12, 2023.

The right-wing takeover of the House Republican conference is counting on a feckless speaker and the “timid twenty.”

Kevin McCarthy’s (D-Calif.) weakness was on display to virtually every demand from right wingers. Even his mentor, former Congressman Bill Thomas, says he lacks character and is untrustworthy.

The “timid twenty” are 17 House Republicans who represent districts carried by Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, and three others who won last November by less 1 percent. (Actually, there are 18 GOP members in those Biden districts, but I don’t count George Santos, the notorious Long Island fabulist, whom I suspect isn’t long for the House.)

These Republicans are in a squeeze. They campaigned against Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats saying a GOP-led House would bring better days. But most didn’t advocate the slash-and-burn tactics the majority of the right-wingers are demanding.

They know, however, if they don’t go along, the slashers and burners will threaten a primary challenge. An early indicator: They all went along with rules changes approved last week, including weakening ethics rules and implied acceptance of the plum assignments and policy concessions won by fringe figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

Initially, Republicans are bringing up the politically easy ones. They voted to rescind the $80 billion, over a decade, approved last year for the resource-starved Internal Revenue Service. Voting against the tax collector is easy, though stupid. The Congressional Budget office said it actually would add $114 billion to the deficit with more lax tax enforcement.

Unlike the GOP talking points, additional audits wouldn’t go after small businesses and middle-income taxpayers, but would focus on high-income tax cheats, many of whom probably are campaign contributors.

Of these 17 Republicans representing Biden districts, five are from California and five from New York. These likely will be deep blue states in 2024. Two certain Democratic top targets: John Duarte in California and Michael Lawler in New York both won by less than a percentage point. So did three other Republicans, including freshman John James, winning a Michigan district by half a point against a weak candidate and Colorado’s notorious Lauren Boebert, who won by a little over 500 votes; she won’t change, but Democrats will pour a lot more resources into that race next year.

The resurgent right wingers believe these more moderate types likely will cave when it matters; that’s their history. If so, they will have to explain changing positions they took during the election last year.

One flashpoint may be Ukraine, where aid is fully funded for this year. But McCarthy has vowed there won’t be a “blank check,” and Greene, the ultra-right lawmaker who has become a McCarthy ally, has insisted “not another penny will go to Ukraine.” A number of the “swing 17,” like Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick and Nebraska’s Don Bacon have promised full support for Ukraine.

The granddaddy of these tests may be Republican plans to use the extension of the debt ceiling as leverage to force spending cuts, including in Social Security and Medicare. No matter how they dress it up, that won’t go over well in districts in New York, California, or Omaha.

Numerous other GOP members from Biden-won districts, like Lori Chavez-DeRemer of Oregon and Arizona’s Juan Ciscomani, promised not to cut Social Security or Medicare.

The plan is to freeze all federal spending at 2022 levels, which actually would mean a cut in real terms — likely in the tens of billions, according to analysts I’ve talked with. Reductions in the defense budget won’t fly. If the GOP persist on domestic spending, it will involve a lot of political pain for those in competitive districts. This could mean reductions in border patrol agents, a cut in the National Institutes of Health budget, and almost certainly cause an increase child poverty.

But the prime focus of the Republican right will be endless investigations. To be sure, there are some legitimate inquiries: Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) heads a select committee on China.

It’s hard to argue against another inquiry into Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, even if the overall policy was right.

More prominent will be the fiercely partisan investigations designed to take down Biden and his family and seek revenge for Donald Trump and his sins and lies. A major point of Jim Jordan’s (R-Ohio) deep state investigation is to claim that Trump was maligned. Never mind Jordan’s own dubious ties to the former president during the Jan. 6 mob assault on the Capitol. It’s a certainty this probe won’t get into Trump’s efforts to compromise the IRS or FBI or the Justice Department to protect him and his allies.

Similarly, Republican plans to probe the origins of the Coronavirus is intended to slime Anthony Fauci, a favorite whipping boy of the right. You can bet they won’t explore the charge by Trump’s adviser Deborah Birx that his inattention cost the lives of 130,000 Americans.

Will new members like New Jersey’s Tom Kean, Jr., the son of the immensely respected chair of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, stay silent about these witch hunts?

McCarthy has a margin of only four votes; for all the chatter about the right-wing control of the House, it’s the “timid twenty” that hold the balance of power if — and it’s a big if — they have the will.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Anthony Fauci Bill Thomas Brian Fitzpatrick Congressional investigations Deborah Birx debt ceiling Don Bacon Donald Trump George Santos Government shutdown House Freedom Caucus House Speaker Kevin McCarthy Jim Jordan Joe Biden John Duarte John James Juan Ciscomani Kevin McCarthy Lauren Boebert Lori Chavez-DeRemer MAGA Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene Medicare cuts Michael Lawler Mike Gallagher Nancy Pelosi Republican agenda Republican House Majority Right wing right-wing extremism Right-wing politics social security cuts Speaker race speaker vote Tom Kean Jr. US aid to Ukraine US military aid to Ukraine

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