House’s failure to elect speaker highlights US political polarization, could push politicians toward adventurism
Published: Jan 04, 2023 10:28 PM
US House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy is followed by reporters as he heads to the Capitol Hill in Washington on January 3, 2023. McCarthy failed to win the 218 votes required to become Speaker. Photo: VCG

US House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy is followed by reporters as he heads to the Capitol Hill in Washington on January 3, 2023. McCarthy failed to win the 218 votes required to become Speaker. Photo: VCG

A once-in-a-century battle has broken out in the US House of Representatives after Republican Kevin McCarthy was unable to win the support he needed from his fellow lawmakers to succeed Democrat Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday. Analysts said that the new House GOP majority's deadlock shows the polarization and division in US politics, not just between Republicans and Democrats, but also within each party. 

They also warned that US politicians may support more provocative foreign policies, particularly with regard to China, in order to divert public attention from the growing uncertainty in US domestic politics.

McCarthy failed to win the 218 votes required to become speaker on Tuesday after three rounds of voting because 20 hard-line conservatives decided to oppose him, splitting from the majority 202 Republicans who gave their support to the top House Republican. Republicans are currently attempting to find a way ahead as the House has been suspended until Wednesday, media reported.

The last time a speaker's election required several ballots was in 1923 and the current stalemate fully shows the divide within the Republicans, Diao Daming, an expert on US studies and associate professor at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, told the Global Times on Wednesday. 

Some extremely conservative and far-right Republicans have emerged since the Tea Party movement in 2009. They formed the Freedom Caucus in 2015 with the aim of pushing the Republican leadership to the right. Diao said that these conservatives are dissatisfied with the mainstream friction represented by McCarthy, complaining they have made too many compromises with the Democratic Party. 

House Republicans hold 222 seats in the new Congress and the slim 222-212 majority gives these hardliners more influence, which they are using to seek rule changes that would give them greater control over the speaker and more influence over the party's approach, analysts said.
Some Republicans may transfer their resentment to the scandal-plagued former president Donald Trump on McCarthy due to their close relationship, and some may object to McCarthy because he is a consummate political operative without any ethics, Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times. 

Late on Tuesday, McCarthy told reporters that Trump had called him to reiterate his support. Trump backed McCarthy in the race and remains a powerful figure in the Republican Party, according to reports. 

Whether McCarthy can work out an agreement with the hard-line members, which would entail making compromises, will determine the election result. In addition, the GOP is having trouble choosing who could replace McCarthy as house speaker, said Li, noting that finally electing a speaker after several rounds of ballots may also lead to a string of problems. 

McCarthy has vowed to stay in the race as he continues his increasingly imperiled bid for speaker. But the longer the fight drags on, the more uncertainty there is over whether he can win, Reuters reported. 

The split among different groups exist not only in the GOP. The Democratic Party is likewise divided politically, and intra-party battles are becoming more widely noted, underscoring the growing polarization and division in US politics, Diao said. 

The 118th Congress cannot begin its work because of the impasse in the speaker's election, and if it continues, the legislative institution will suffer the consequences. Although a speaker will finally be chosen, Republican lawmakers will be engaged in fierce intra-party struggles and doing battle with the Democrats, therefore paying little attention to the real problems of the US, Diao said.

"The US political system has declined and its political ecology has deteriorated. It's unable to react to the real demands of Americans," Diao said. 

Analysts said that the current state of disarray in US politics suggests that the country's politics will be in chaos with fragile foundations and unpredictable foreign policy during the final two years of the Biden administration before the 2024 election.

The political chaos in the US may push more voices and moves toward adventurism, especially on the China policy and the Ukraine crisis. Even with McCarthy winning the race for the speaker, Congress would be in a weak situation. There may be more uncertainties in China-US relations given McCarthy's previous hawkish remarks on China. 

Li also warned that given the widening domestic rift, some US politicians may try to divert domestic attention by inciting conflicts abroad, which China and the international community should be on high alert for.