Left: Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) on Thursday, September 28, 2023. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images) Right: Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) on Sept. 30, 2023. (Francis Chung/POLITICO via AP Images) Scalise and Jordan are the two announced candidates to replace House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Beyond the formal, furrowed-brow statements from congressional communications directors, Senator John Fetterman probably best captured the consensus view among Democrats of the House Speaker drama roiling Washington: “Replacing one dick with a different kind of dick isn’t going to change anything in the House.” 

Democrats better hope that’s true. Otherwise, we’re headed for a very long government shutdown. 

Now-former Speaker Kevin McCarthy disgusted Democrats with his many attempts to appease the most rabid elements of the House Republican Conference—most notably, pushing spending bills with cuts deeper than agreed upon in last spring’s debt limit deal, unilaterally greenlighting an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, and last Sunday claiming Democrats “were willing to let government shut down” instead of thanking them for supporting his bill to keep the federal government open. 

All low road moves. Nevertheless, McCarthy did forge the debt-limit deal with time to spare. McCarthy did abandon his draconian cuts and pushed through a “clean” 47-day spending bill without poison pills when the shutdown was imminent. A different kind of speaker may not do the same when we reach the next deadline if we even have a speaker by then. 

On the morning of what turned out to be McCarthy’s last day as speaker, I made the case for Democrats to keep him in place because a Republican speaker who will keep the government open and pay debt obligations is as good a speaker as Democrats will get. Instead, House Democrats focused on everything McCarthy did outside of those two acts to conclude, in the words of Representative Abigail Spanberger, “he’s likely the most unprincipled person to ever be speaker of the House.” 

The Republican who introduced the motion to vacate, Representative Matt Gaetz, would no doubt agree. On Sunday he argued, “Speaker McCarthy made an agreement with House conservatives in January, and since then, he’s been in brazen, repeated material breach of that agreement. This agreement that he made with Democrats to really blow past a lot of the spending guardrails we set up is a last straw.”  

Gaetz and his splinter faction accused McCarthy of violating a January deal he made with them for draconian cuts. At the same time, Democrats didn’t trust McCarthy to follow through on the May deal with President Joe Biden for milder spending cuts. One congressional staffer posted on X that McCarthy’s plan to move individual appropriations bills in October indicated that, despite the stopgap spending bill, he was “going to steer us directly back into the crazy cuts and abortion restrictions.” McCarthy was mistrusted, left and right. So here we are.  

To my eye, McCarthy’s decision to pass a bipartisan stopgap bill showed his hand more than anything else. He may have hoped to wrangle some more cuts out of the appropriations process, or at least wanted fellow Republicans to believe he was trying his hardest to do so, but he wasn’t going to shut down the government over it.  

Regardless, what’s done is done. Now the challenge is keeping the government open with a speaker who, to secure 218 Republican votes, will likely need the blessing of the nihilists who provoked McCarthy’s ouster. 

Yes, as I wrote here recently, any shutdown will be the fault of Republicans, and no shutdown has ever led to the instigating crew securing their stated policy demands. But if it takes months before Republicans accept political reality, the long period of government inactivity could take a big chunk out of the Gross Domestic Product. The worst-case scenario for Democrats: what had been an upward economic trajectory is wrenched downward into recession. What could begin as a self-inflicted wound by Republicans could eventually bleed out Joe Biden’s re-election. McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were not interested in taking this political gamble, but the next speaker might. 

Can Democrats avoid this scenario by collaborating with the handful of House Republicans representing Biden-won districts and electing a moderate speaker? Business Insider’s Bryan Metzger put that question to Representative Mike Lawler, who resides in an upstate New York district Biden won by 10 points. He “became livid” and replied, “Democrats just joined together with Matt Gaetz to upend the Republican majority and upend the institution of the House of Representatives. So whatever hopes of a bipartisan compromise, you can kiss that goodbye.”  

McCarthy may have been unprincipled, but Democrats must now gird themselves for a Republican speaker who may have more right-wing principles and little, if any, investment in the spending caps set by the Biden-McCarthy debt limit deal (though the two announced candidates for speaker, Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan, both voted for that deal.)  

Democrats likely will and should insist on sticking with a deal supported by a majority of House members in each party, making clear any shutdown is being provoked by reneging Republicans. Presumably, if past shutdown dramas are any guide, the instigators will eventually fold. Whether Republicans, under, say, Speaker Jordan or Speaker Scalise, would blink before inflicting lasting economic damage is something Democrats can’t dictate. 

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.