Opinions, Column

Party Leadership Risks a Rug Pull

Early into the 118th Congress, both houses have already found themselves steeped in political drama—from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s trials and tribulations to changing political loyalties in the Senate.

House Republicans recently removed Rep. Ilhan Omar from her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, citing several antisemitic tweets she made as a freshman representative that they said made her unfit to serve. Republicans claim to be maintaining a similar standard to the Democrats, who made a historic decision in 2021 to oust two members of Congress from their committee assignments. Rep. Paul Gosar was punished for releasing an ad where he attacked Rep. Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez, while Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was ejected for similar threats of violence.

I would say that the Republican case holds water, but they placed Greene on the Homeland Security Committee. Like Omar, she has made past comments that were widely considered antisemitic. This makes their moral grandstanding all but a thin veneer for what it really is: political backbiting.

McCarthy, in a weakened position after his messy election, wanted to rally his caucus behind a non-controversial issue. So, he authorized these removals to prove his partisan bona fides to the Freedom Caucus and make good on the promise he made in November of last year. He kicked out Democrats Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Eric Swalwell from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for these same reasons.

Some GOP senators, emboldened by McCarthy’s trials and tribulations in the House, may believe a similar weak leadership crisis could play out in the Senate. After all, the upper chamber’s GOP members grew discontent when they saw Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell allow the Biden administration to pass legislative victories with a midterm election only weeks away. These forces coalesced around Sen. Rick Scott, a arch-conservative who promoted his “Rescue America” plan as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

His plan was ultimately rejected by McConnell as the official party platform, but it did not dissuade Rick Scott from believing his message was the right path for the party. Nonetheless, McConnell has poured cold water on any hopes of ousting him as party leader with his reelection. McConnell then humbled Scott by removing him from several committees. All the while, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has faced no real challenges to his leadership.

So what is going on here? Why is the House’s party leadership facing this crisis now? And why has the Senate not faced similar pressures?

The first part of this answer surrounds the growing discontent between the congressmen elected from 2016 onward and the Baby Boomer party leadership, who has remained in power since the ’90s and early 2000s.

Nancy Pelosi has led the House Democrats since 2007, Schumer chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as early as 2006, McConnell became Senate majority whip in 2003, and McCarthy became House majority whip in 2011. All of these politicians have held some powerful position within their respective parties for decades. Thus, there is a growing generational and ideological gap between new members and leadership. One need only look at the 20 republicans who opposed McCarthy’s Speakership to prove this: all but three of them were elected between 2016–22 (with Gosar, Harris, and Perry as the exceptions). In 2018, Democrats faced a parallel situation: Some Democrats expressed opposition to Pelosi’s leadership and only backed her after she agreed to step down in 2022. This left the older Democratic leadership with a choice: either retire or risk having the rug pulled right out beneath them.

And the Senate is not immune from these political pressures on party leadership, it has just faced them slower than the House because of senators’ longer terms. . But, that delay might be over soon. Six senators retired in 2022, and their replacements are all generally younger and closer to their respective parties’ far left or right wings. Many of the most vulnerable Democrats will be up for reelection in 2024, such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sen. John Tester of Montana, and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio—all of these races are likely to be hyper-competitive. Should any or all of them lose re-election, it would bring more freshman Republican senators into the upper chamber and give more teeth to any future challenge that Scott may offer. Such a defeat could also leave Schumer vulnerable to a leadership crisis where he would face challenges from a progressive or younger senator.

At this point, I believe the sixth-party system as it currently stands is on its way out. With growing factionalism and a withering old guard, a new dynamic is taking shape within both parties. Whether this means a total political realignment, or perhaps a doubling-down on current ideology, is unknown. The past few congressional elections resulted in younger candidates getting elected, and their values and loyalty are drastically different from their predecessors and colleagues. This could explain the new factionalism within the parties and the ongoing leadership crises. It also sheds light on the expulsions and concessions of former House Speaker Pelosi and McCarthy—leaders are trying to maintain party unity and power in the wake of a new political dynamic.

February 12, 2023