A standoff over the debt ceiling. Aid to Ukraine on the chopping block. And impeachment proceedings against homeland security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas – or perhaps even president Joe Biden himself.
With polls indicating they have a good shot of winning a majority in the House of Representatives in the 8 November midterms, top Republican lawmakers have in recent weeks offered a preview what they might do with their resurgent power, and made clear they have their sights set on key aspects of the Biden administration’s policies at home and abroad.
Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the chamber, this week signaled in an interview with Punchbowl News that if Congress is going to approve an increase in the amount the federal government can borrow – as it’s expected to need to by sometime next year – Republicans are going to want an agreement to cut spending in return.
“You can’t just continue down the path to keep spending and adding to the debt,” said McCarthy, who is likely to be elevated to speaker of the house in a Republican led-chamber. “And if people want to make a debt ceiling [for a longer period of time], just like anything else, there comes a point in time where, okay, we’ll provide you more money, but you got to change your current behavior.”
Asked if he might demand that Social Security and Medicare, the two massive federal retirement and healthcare benefit programs that are nearing insolvency, be reformed as part of debt ceiling negotiations, McCarthy replied that he would not “predetermine” anything.
But the California lawmaker warned that members of his caucus were starting to question the money Washington was sending to Ukraine to help it fend off Russia’s invasion. “Ukraine is important, but at the same time it can’t be the only thing they do and it can’t be a blank check,” he told Punchbowl.
Then there’s the question of if Republicans will choose to exercise the House’s powers of impeachment – as they did against Bill Clinton in 1998, and as Democrats did to Donald Trump in 2019 and 2021.
The prime target appears to be Mayorkas, whom Republicans have pilloried amid an uptick in arrivals of migrants at the United States’ border with Mexico. Yet another target could be Biden himself – as Jim Banks, chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, which crafts policy for the party, suggested on Thursday.
Political realities may pose an obstacle to McCarthy and his allies’ ability to see their plans through. High inflation and Biden’s low approval ratings have given them momentum to retake the House, but their chances of winning a majority in the Senate are seen as a toss-up. Even if they did win that chamber, they’re unlikely to have the two-thirds majority necessary to convict Biden, Mayorkas, or whomever else they intend to impeach – or even the numbers to overcome Democratic filibusters of any legislation they try to pass.
Matt Grossman, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, questioned the GOP’s willingness to legislate. The party’s plans, as outlined in the Commitment to America McCarthy unveiled last month, appear thin in comparison to similar platforms rolled out in 1994 and 2010, when Republicans again took back Congress’ lower chamber from Democratic majorities.
“There’s a longstanding asymmetry between the parties. Republicans legitimately want government to do less,” he said.
“They’re doing pretty well electorally without necessarily needing a policy agenda, and they’re tied to, kind of, defending the Trump administration or attacking the Biden administration. There’s not much of a felt need for a lot of policy.”
There are also signs of division within the party over how the GOP should use its new majority. In his interview with Punchbowl, McCarthy said he was against “impeachment for political purposes” and focused instead on addressing crime, border security and economic issues, all familiar themes for Republicans running this year.
The split was even more pronounced when it came to Ukraine. On Wednesday, Trump’s former vice-president Mike Pence called in a speech at influential conservative group the Heritage Foundation for Republicans to continue to support the country, saying “there can be no room in the conservative movement for apologists to” Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The day after, the foundation’s president Kevin Roberts put out a statement saying: “Heritage will vigorously oppose Washington’s big spenders who attempt to pass another Ukrainian aid package lacking debate, a clear strategy, targeted funding and spending offsets.”
Democrats are assured control of Congress until the end of the year, and have taken note of the apparent erosion of will to support Kyiv. NBC News reports they may push for another big military aid infusion in a year-end spending bill, intended to keep the Ukrainians armed for months to come.
It seems clear that Republicans will eventually coalesce behind a strategy to strong-arm the Biden administration for some purpose, but Grossman predicted the likely result would be similar to the 2013 government shutdown, when then president Barack Obama and the Democrats refused the GOP’s demands to dismantle his signature health care law.
“With McCarthy it just seems like he is a go along,” he said. “He’s going to be a go-along speaker and that’s going to be the case with a pretty fractious caucus.”