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Is This Just the Beginning of Far Right Attempt to Make Congress Dysfunctional?

GOP doesn’t want a functioning federal government that can pass legislation and support working people, Greg Casar says.

The U.S House of Representatives still has no speaker after Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy failed to get the full backing of his party over the course of two days and six rounds of voting. A contingent of about 20 far-right lawmakers opposes McCarthy’s elevation to the top job, but no other candidate has emerged so far who can garner the 218 votes necessary to claim the speaker’s gavel. The impasse has ground all congressional business to a halt, including the swearing-in of new members like Texas Democrat Greg Casar, who says the dysfunction in Congress is no accident. “This is part of their goal. They don’t want a functioning federal government that can pass legislation and support working people,” Casar says of the Republican Party. We also speak with The Intercept’s Ryan Grim, who says much of the press has missed the substance of the fight over the speakership, which is about the far right’s drive to slash social spending, even if it means refusing to raise the debt ceiling and triggering a U.S. default that would crash the economy.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Congressional chaos. Yes, we go now to Capitol Hill, where the House of Representatives remains without a House speaker following a rebellion by far-right Republicans who have blocked Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s attempts to become speaker. On Wednesday, the House held three more rounds of votes, and in each one McCarthy failed to win the needed 218 votes to become speaker, even though Republicans hold a slim majority in the House. Until a speaker is elected, the House cannot perform any other actions. In fact, members of the new Congress, all of them, more than 400 of them, haven’t even been sworn in yet.

In the fifth and sixth rounds of voting, 20 Republicans backed Byron Donalds of Florida over McCarthy. The leader of the Democrats in the House, Hakeem Jeffries, has so far received the most votes in each round as the entire Democratic caucus supports him.

CHERYL JOHNSON: That the total of number of votes cast is 433, of which the honorable Hakeem Jeffries of the state of New York has received 212, the honorable Kevin McCarthy of the state of California has received 201, the honorable Byron Donalds of the state of Florida has received 20, with one recorded as present. No member-elect having received a majority of the votes cast, a speaker has not been elected.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’ll go to Capitol Hill to speak with Representative-elect Greg Casar of Texas, who’s still waiting to be sworn in. On Wednesday, he appeared on a live Instagram video with New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: Hey, y’all!

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Everybody, what’s up?

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: How’s it going?

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: We got Greg Casar here. We got the Capitol in the background. We’re just kind of sitting here, because —

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: I was supposed to become a member of Congress yesterday, and we’re still waiting.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Poor Greg, he was supposed to be sworn in for the first time yesterday. I was supposed to be sworn in for — I can’t even believe it — the third time.

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: Third time.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: My gosh.

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: And they make them different. They give us these Green —

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Yes.

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: Now we’ve got Green New Deal pins.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: We’ve got — I know. I put in a call. I said, “Everyone’s getting a Green New Deal pin.” And, you know, they just did it, because —

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: Yeah.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: — according to the far right —

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: She runs the place.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: According to the far right —

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: That’s right.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: — the left flank of the party runs — if only, right? We would have Medicare for All by now, if that was the truth. But just wanted to say hey to everybody, because we’re just sitting here, and it’s just a total mess right now. There’s still no speaker of the House. We’re now what? It’s up to —

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: I keep thinking that somebody is going to tell me what’s going to happen. Right? There’s like hundreds of members of Congress. I’m like, “So, what’s happening next?” They’re like, “We don’t know. We’ll find out.”

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: We have no idea.

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: This is how the government is run.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Democratic Congressmember-elect Greg Casar, as well as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on any Instagram feed. But right now the Congressmember-elect Casar is joining us from the Cannon Rotunda. He’s a former labor organizer and Austin city councilmember. Also with us, Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief for The Intercept.

So, Greg Casar, this has been quite an initiation for you. I mean, in fact, in a way, the House of Representatives does not exist right now, because you need to have a House speaker before any one of the more than 400 congressmembers are sworn in. Talk about your view from right there, as you sit there, what’s taking place. Explain to us what you understand is happening with McCarthy and his right flank.

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: Yeah. Good morning. In some ways, it’s flabbergasting, as you saw with my conversation with Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez. But on the other hand, it’s not that surprising. There were so many members who have here for decades, who said this hadn’t happened in a century. But my feeling is that we should have seen this coming, because Kevin McCarthy and the top Republicans in the House have essentially been putting gas in the tank of this kind of Republican extremism and division for so long that, of course, this isn’t just a tactic, this is part of their goal. They don’t want a functioning federal government that can pass legislation and support working people. They want to continue to drag us further and further to the right, or even just not even have a Congress in the first place.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Greg, could you explain who are the hard-line, far-right conservatives who are holding up the selection of a House speaker — the election of a House speaker?

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: You have, essentially, the most Trump part of the Republican Party, some real true believers in what I believe is a more authoritarian, much more strongly authoritarian form of government. And what they want to do is, essentially, change the rules of the House in their favor so that they can push the Republican Party further and further to the right. They’re making arguments about how they want a more democratic process, but, ultimately, it seems to be a process that they want to have more power for themselves to continue to drive the government to the right.

And Kevin McCarthy, to them, is essentially too much of a liberal, even though he is, ultimately, of the extreme right of this country and, frankly, of the extreme right for a politician in the world.

And so, it really is quite a thing to see. As they continue to embrace authoritarianism and division, we try to stay united and are trying to build a positive vision for the country, and try to show folks that we’re going to hopefully be interested in governing, if we take back the House here in just two years.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it true that the Democrats are eating popcorn, watching the show?

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: I wish I knew where the popcorn stands were. But, you know, apart from the fact that we could laugh some about them sort of being eating alive by the monster they created, on the other hand, it is terrifying. We don’t have a United States Congress. And despite how the media does show, accurately, that there is division there, we also hear in their speeches a lot of unity around moving the country further to the right. Whether you’re a McCarthy person or a “never McCarthy” Republican, they continue to give speeches about the border, vilifying asylum seekers and refugees and immigrants and poor Black and Brown people. So, in many ways, they really are unified around this platform, and that is actually really a scary thing for the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask you, as you were there with AOC. There is a lot of criticism that the Squad has, and other progressives, of Hakeem Jeffries, but you all have been unified in voting for him as House speaker. Again, he is the first Black lawmaker to be voted a House speaker nominee. But the significance of this? And do you share their criticism? But, obviously, you voted for him, as well.

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: That’s correct. I believe, as a longtime labor organizer and somebody that has worked on a body where I was the most progressive member, but there were other Democrats, and then Republicans, on that body, when I was on city council — I believe that you need to use your leverage to continue to negotiate and get the best deal that you can get. And I believe that will be the work that we’re tasked with doing with Speaker Jeffries. He’s a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. I agree with him on many issues. There are some issues where I believe that we need to get more progressive legislation and more progressive action out of Democratic leadership. That’s part of the job, is for us to each play our role on the team and recognize that we need to have leverage on the left.

For example, we’ve been working for months pushing and asking the White House to help us get abortion access in Texas via the U.S. Postal Service. And now, just two days ago, the Department of Justice finally released an opinion that clears the path for people in blue states to mail abortion pills to places like Texas.

And again, you know, President Biden did not run on a hardcore progressive platform, but I believe that by continuing doing our organizing work, building public pressure and creating alliances, we can get important work done, whether there is a House for the next few days or not.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ryan Grim, you’ve been there reporting on these extraordinary events. If you could talk about your response to what’s been happening, and these Republicans who are holding things up, these far-right Republican extremists?

RYAN GRIM: I think the piece that the media has been missing so far is the substance of the fight that’s being waged right now. And it’s really about social spending, and particularly about Social Security, about Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.

You know, yesterday Ralph Norman, who’s a Freedom Caucus member from South Carolina, told reporters in the hallway that the thing that Kevin McCarthy needs to agree to to win their support, that is nonnegotiable, is that he needs to be willing to shut the government down rather than raise the debt ceiling. You know, that’s a rather frightening statement on a number of levels. On the top level, it’s frightening because it’s a complete misunderstanding of how government works. There’s actually not a relationship between a government shutdown and hitting the debt ceiling. And one reporter immediately said to him, “You mean going into default?” And he said, “Well, you wouldn’t go into default if you start planning now to stop spending money, you know, among various agencies, and so we could avoid that.” But that’s a complete fantasy. There is no path that gets you out of — you know, you would have to — it’s just simply incredible that he would suggest something like that.

The only kind of remedy, it seems like at this point, that the executive has is to say, “Look, the debt ceiling is not actually constitutional. Congress has appropriated money. It’s the executive’s job to spend that money. And we’re just not going to pay attention to the debt ceiling anymore.” And then I guess you would punt it over to the Supreme Court, and you would dare the Supreme Court to put the country into global default, which I don’t think that they would do, because that would undermine their real mission, you know, the mission that the Roberts Court is on. So I think that that’s the thing that people are missing, is that this is all setting up for some titanic fight this summer over the debt ceiling.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ryan Grim, how do you see the stalemate ending?

RYAN GRIM: You know, I wish I could tell you. I feel like a fraud up here. I’ve been covering Congress for 15, 16 years, or whatever, now, and like Congressman-elect Greg Casar was saying, nobody really knows.

You know, the right is feeling their oats right now. Like, talking to sources on the right, they’re like, “Look, McCarthy is toast.” You know, he had a long time to work with these members, to win their support. He didn’t. They’re all trashing him, saying he doesn’t trust them. His allies are all calling them narcissists. You had Ken Buck say that, you know, “Maybe we just need to give Steve Scalise a shot to work a deal out,” which was a really brutal kind of blow for McCarthy. On the other hand, you have a bunch of McCarthy supporters saying, “We’re not doing that. We’re pushing forward.”

And so, there was a deal cut last night, where Kevin McCarthy agreed that the House Republican super PAC would not go after far-right Republicans in open red seats, which is something I think the Squad probably should have pushed for in 2019 and 2021, to say, “Hey, if you want our support, then the DCCC and the House super PAC have to stop kind of putting their thumb on the scale in Democratic primaries.” That was a good idea from them. But will that be enough for them to go over and support McCarthy? Nobody really knows.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that further, what this super PAC is all about. And then, apparently overnight, he has agreed to allow just one congressmember to — can put forward a motion to remove the House speaker. I think he had agreed to five before, now one —

RYAN GRIM: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — and then the House would vote on it, to say the least —

RYAN GRIM: Right. Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — holding a gun to his head.

RYAN GRIM: Yeah, and I always thought that that was kind of a silly demand, because if you’re going to get rid of the speaker, you’re going to need five votes anyway, so what’s the big deal about needing one person putting forward a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair versus needing five signatures to vacate it? But, OK, so now McCarthy has even given in to lowering the threshold from five down to one. That would only produce a vote. That wouldn’t vacate the chair. But, presumably, if somebody is going to put that forward, they would have the votes at that point.

The Congressional Leadership Fund is basically kind of the House Republicans’ super PAC. And McCarthy was using it to go after some of these far-right Republicans, just the same way that the DCCC and the House super PAC had gone after some kind of Justice Democrats or Squad-aligned Democrats over the years. And so, what the far right was able to extract from him here, in the negotiations with Club for Growth, which the left doesn’t have — that’s a, you know, billionaire-funded kind of super PAC — saying that, “Look, OK, we will let these primaries play out, and we’re not going to get involved with those.”

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Greg Casar, as we talked about divisions even within the Democratic Party, about President Biden announcing he’s going to visit the U.S.-Mexico border next week as part of his trip to Mexico next week. It will be his first visit to the border since taking office. I mean, the images on the border, both sides — Ciudad Juárez, El Paso — of people freezing under blankets. Title 42, the Biden administration has kind of wanted to remove the pandemic policy that has prevented millions from applying for political asylum in the United States, still is in place because of the Supreme Court. What do you want to see happen this next week? And will you be going to the border with him?

REP.-ELECT GREG CASAR: I hope that I’m installed as a member of Congress and that we get to get out of D.C. and get back to Texas to work with my constituents in my district and on the border. I believe that it’s really important for the president to be there and for the truth to be spoken about what’s going on on the border, because so much of the fearmongering — we heard on the House floor yesterday that these are criminals. It’s like when President Trump came down the escalator and said they are rapists. But, really, we’re talking about asylum seekers, refugees, moms and their kids, that are in dire need.

I know that our country and our economy will be so much stronger and that we’re all better off when immigrants are welcomed into this country and supported. The federal government should provide the support necessary to the relatively small overall number of people that have been displaced and that are hungry, that are coming here to make our country and everybody’s lives here better off. That’s what makes Texas a great place in the first place. And I think the president being there, I think it will give him the stories he needs to tell the true story. I think it can touch our hearts and help us do the right thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ryan Grim, can you tell us who Byron Donalds is, the African American Republican congressmember who 20 Republicans have voted for, the first time an African American, in both the Democratic and Republican Party, has been nominated to be House speaker?

RYAN GRIM: Fairly new member of Congress, a far-right member of the Freedom Caucus. And like you said, the Republicans were extremely proud to eventually move their support to him. They started with a number of others, like Jim Jordan and others. One of the Republicans, when they got up, basically gave a speech about Frederick Douglass, telling — reminding the Democrats that Frederick Douglass was a Republican and how Douglass said he would always and only ever be a Republican, and then, from there, nominated Byron. So, it’s —

AMY GOODMAN: We have four seconds.

RYAN GRIM: It’s kind of a play that they’re making on identity politics.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we’ll continue to cover this, Ryan Grim, D.C., bureau chief for The Intercept, and Democratic Congressmember-elect Greg Casar of Texas.

Happy birthday to Clara Ibarra, and belated happy birthday to Dennis McCormick! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.