Resolute Square

McCarthy's Real Problem

While flamboyant characters within the GOP continue to draw focus during McCarthy's desperate push to pass anything, moderates within the party make it clear-the real issue is the party's extremism on abortion rights.
Published:September 15, 2023

Published with the generous permission of Amee Vanderpool. For more of Amee's work, visit her Shero newsletter.

By Amee Vanderpool

Republican leadership in the House postponed another vote on Wednesday afternoon to move forward on passing the Defense Spending Bill, a typically routine piece of legislation that tends to be the least controversial and easiest to pass. The $826 billion spending package was loaded with addendums to satiate the far right’s quest to continue the war on “woke.” In that form it would have never escaped the clutches of Senate Democrats or President Biden, including provisions to stop the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy, medical treatment for transgender troops and diversity programs.

In the midst of this crippling self-imposed freeze to spending — brought on by Republicans who are intent on taking their loosing battle of culture wars to the ballot box — certain members of the GOP have determined that this is the time for political theater, rather than working to negotiate any kind of ceasefire. While the outlandish moves of people like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who are intent on holding McCarthy hostage to get their own way are hardly a new trick, the situation appears to be wearing thin on members of the Freedom Caucus, who are no closer to finding a solution that would appease the petulant Congressional drama club or fund the federal government.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) gives a thumbs down during President Joe Biden's State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the US Capitol on Tuesday, February 7, 2023. (Photo by Tom Williams/via Getty Images)

The House has passed only one of 12 appropriations bills this year. At the center of the legislative congestion: the need for House GOP leaders to insert restrictive abortion policies into every major spending plan they can get their hands on, to help satiate other conservative members and influential outside groups that are pivotal to wining elections in conservative districts. But this plan has backfired spectacularly and forced many Republicans in moderate districts to actually draw the line and withdraw their support.

House Republicans hold a narrow majority and can afford to lose only a precious few votes, which gives every conservative member of Congress, who is willing to hold out, massive leverage within the caucus. At the other extreme of the party sit ultra-conservative members who have threatened to use the ouster of McCarthy as Speaker since he was barely able to clinch the title.

“Do these things or face a motion to vacate the chair,” threatened Matt Gaetz to Speaker McCarthy in a House floor speech, where he outlined a series of his demands, intending to hold the Speakership hostage. Do these things and lose the bulk of your support, echoed moderate Republicans who have seen the writing on the wall with regard to abortion restrictions, and who fear losing re-election more than a Gaetz tantrum.

Abortion has been on the ballot in seven states since that landmark court decision June 24, 2022 that brought the hammer down on decades of established abortion protections. In each election in red states and blue states, time after time, anti-abortion advocates have lost big. In some instances, voters have overwhelmingly enacted constitutional amendments protecting abortion rights. In others, they've rejected measures that would weaken protections or fail to protect abortion rights within the state constitution.

Each time the issue of abortion is on the ballot the since the Dobbs ruling, conservatives lose in a way that has them scared about the next general election — so much that they are moving to rebrand their entire pitch of “pro-life” to “pro-baby.” But the voters have made it clear that this is not an issue of optics as much as it is a clear referendum on the GOP’s decision to end decades of healthcare rights that women have come to rely upon.

The latest indicator of this premise is the recent catastrophe involving the agriculture funding bill, a package that should seemingly have nothing to do with the issue of human abortion protections or restrictions. A GOP provision to the bill, added in July, would ban the mail delivery of abortion pills nationwide. A party rift over the provision, along with exacerbated overall spending levels forced senior Republicans to ditch a planned vote on the bill, and attempts to revive the bill over the August recess with negotiations have ended in disaster.

In an ironic move to describe the status of the talks and the impending fate of the House USDA and FDA funding bill, one of the people familiar with the negotiation proclaimed, “It’s dead, dead.” Another major arm of federal funding is DOA, thanks to the issue of abortion restrictions, and the Republicans need to earmark every last bill, even down to agriculture.

An abortion rights demonstrator holds a sign near the US Capitol during the annual Women's March to support Women's Rights in Washington, DC, October 8, 2022. (Photo by Robert Schmidt/ via Getty Images)
Pushback on spending is expected, especially from conservative members of the House who are looking to curtail spending before heading back to their districts to face tough elections. Senator Tommy Tuberville has singlehandedly stopped hundreds of President Biden’s military promotions due to opposition of the Defense Department’s abortion policy, creating what many officials have called a dangerous risk to national security.

Now moderate Republicans, who narrowly won elections in battleground districts have begun to act on what they see as a failure on the conservative issue of abortion, which continues to hold the federal government in gridlock and risks their own chances for re-election in 2024.

The clearest tell on where moderate Republicans currently stand on these controversial abortion provisions is best encapsulated in their recent mantra trotted out after the agriculture bill failed. The abortion pill policy “should be dealt with at the state level,” said Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY), who also hails from a Biden blue district. Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-NY), who represents a district President Joe Biden won in 2020, confirmed in an interview earlier this summer that he “cannot vote for the bill” as long as it includes the abortion pill rider. “Some states allow it to be mailed, some don’t. That should be a decision that the states make.”

As for the “state level” position on abortion protections that continue to gain steam, the popularity of such measures is undeniable at the ballot box. In Ohio on Tuesday, the issue of abortion wasn't directly on the ballot, but a measure that would make it tougher to pass state constitutional amendments in the future was front and center. Moderate Republicans, who are forced to face the realities of what voters in swing states are willing to do, are focusing on the need for state autonomy when it comes to abortion restrictions because they understand what the more fringe members of their caucus refuse to accept: restrict abortion and lose the election.