Analysis: McCarthy's gambles on Ukraine, debt ceiling and Jan. 6 may not be sustainable

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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy may be the only top Western official who balked at boarding the train to Kyiv to stand with Ukraine’s warrior president.

But the California Republican’s decision to turn down Volodymyr Zelensky’s invitation, made in an exclusive interview with CNN, is in keeping with the central premise of his speakership – appeasing the GOP radicals who keep him in power.

But as with his handling of a looming debt ceiling crisis and his efforts to help Tucker Carlson whitewash the Capitol insurrection, McCarthy’s unwillingness to cross lawmakers who want to cut Ukraine’s US lifeline may simply be storing up future national crises that could threaten his hold on power.

His precarious position is fast becoming a dominant feature of a critical period of divided government that will define McCarthy’s political career and go a long way toward shaping the 2024 White House race and the legacy of President Joe Biden.

The volatile dynamics of the House GOP and the way McCarthy’s tiny majority gives outsize influence to the most committed “Make America Great Again” loyalists is also complicating his efforts to train undivided attention on Biden’s new budget to be released Thursday.

Moderate Republicans who helped the GOP win the majority last November are just as important to the party’s hopes of retaining control of the chamber next year as pro-Trump extremists. But their priorities risk being constantly compromised by the speaker’s repeated plays to Trump’s base and the ex-president’s most devoted followers in the House.

McCarthy’s balancing act is so far working for him politically. His decision to give January 6 conspiracist Carlson access to US Capitol security tapes sparked a torrent of criticism from the media and some Republican senators, but that counts as a political win with the MAGA crowd. A House Republican resolution blocking a controversial Washington, DC, crime measure, which also passed the Senate Wednesday, caused a split between progressive Democrats and the president, who declined to veto it. And there’s no immediate bill for billions more in aid for Ukraine that could widen the chasm between far-right lawmakers and GOP committee chairmen who want Biden to send more arms and ammunition into the proxy war against Russia in Ukraine.

But at some point – possibly in the looming summer showdown over raising the government’s borrowing authority, which the GOP refuses to do without Biden agreeing to transformative spending cuts – McCarthy’s strategy could fail in a battle between US interests and the speaker’s political needs.

Almost every Western leader who matters, and many who don’t, have now made the daring trip to visit Zelensky, a hero of democracy, in Kyiv.

Yet McCarthy, who has a reputation for loving a photo-op with famous people, rebuffed the invitation to visit the Ukrainian leader.

“Mr. McCarthy, he has to come here to see how we work, what’s happening here, what war caused us, which people are fighting now, who are fighting now. And then after that, make your assumptions,” Zelensky told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

But the California Republican told CNN on Tuesday he had no plans to visit and reiterated the illogical position that Biden had been too slow to help Ukraine but that he would not preside over a “blank check” in assistance for Zelensky’s government. McCarthy’s bridging of two adamant strands of opinion in the House GOP on Ukraine is just about holding.

“Let’s be very clear about what I said: no blank checks, OK? So, from that perspective, I don’t have to go to Ukraine to understand where there’s a blank check or not,” McCarthy told CNN. “I will continue to get my briefings and others, but I don’t have to go to Ukraine or Kyiv to see it.”

Zelensky is a shrewd politician who has expertly evoked the history and national mythology of Western nations as he has solicited help in repelling Russia’s invasion – for instance, comparing the onslaught to attacks on US soil at Pearl Harbor and on September 11, 2001. McCarthy would be put in a deeply awkward position if he stood alongside the Ukrainian leader in his wartime capital and repeated his line about allowing no “blank checks.”

But making the trip is effectively a political impossibility with his political patron, Trump, accusing Biden of caring more about Ukraine’s borders than America’s. Sooner or later, though, McCarthy may face a choice between the GOP hardliners and the prospect of voting down a future funding bill that Ukraine needs to survive against the Russian assault. Because of concessions he made to win the speakership, it’s not clear he could use Democratic votes without provoking a GOP revolt from hardliners in his conference that could cost him his job.

Critics might hope he’d put principle – defending a pro-Western leader who has risked everything and a democracy Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to obliterate – ahead of his political viability. But that’s not an approach he’s taken at home following Trump’s lies about a stolen election in 2020.

Still, McCarthy hasn’t fully adopted demands of his most radical subordinates, like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida, for audits or an end to Ukraine aid. His line about a blank check could be interpreted as a holding position between his extremist colleagues and hawkish internationalist Republicans who want to do more.

But with Russia only escalating its assault and the GOP presidential primary likely to drag the party toward the anti-aid faction, it’s a position that may crumble before much longer.

The speaker is not only treading a dicey path on Ukraine. His strategy heading into a monumental showdown over spending and debt is one that sustains him for now but will require a series of political masterstrokes for him to come out ahead in a head-to-head with Biden.

If Congress does not raise the government’s current $31.4 trillion borrowing limit later this year, the government will be unable to fulfill its obligations. There could be delays to Social Security payments, military wages and tax refunds. But Republicans in the House are refusing to act unless Biden agrees to steep spending cuts, and McCarthy apparently gave undertakings to stand firm when he needed the support of GOP budget hawks to finally win the speakership after 15 rounds of chaotic voting in January.

Biden is refusing to negotiate, arguing that the debt limit increase is needed to pay for obligations already racked up by Congress and that the GOP previously voted to raise it several times under the free-spending Trump.

Republicans have every right to seek to cut spending. They won the House in the midterm election, albeit narrowly, on their vow to rein in government largesse. But the White House and many financial experts fault them over the debt limit stance because failing to act could shatter the credibility of America’s credit and pitch the global economy into a disaster.

McCarthy has so far shown no clear path through this game of Russian roulette. And he’s blaming Biden for not caving into him on his pledge not to negotiate.

“He told me once that he would, I believe eventually he will, but that’s a month wasted. That’s a month that brings more doubt financially. That’s a month that hurts Americans,” McCarthy told reporters on Wednesday evening.

McCarthy is betting Biden will blink. The White House insists he will not. And the prosperity and livelihoods of millions of Americans may be on the line.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise on Wednesday accused reporters of being obsessed with the mob assault by Trump supporters on Congress.

“It seems like some in the press want to talk about January 6 every day. So do a lot of Democrats,” the Louisiana Republican said.

But it was McCarthy who ignited the latest controversy over the insurrection by giving Carlson exclusive access to thousands of hours of surveillance tapes, allowing the Fox host to cherry pick excerpts that bolstered his effort to hide the truth of what happened. And it’s House Republicans who are talking about that day, with Georgia Rep. Barry Loudermilk, who chairs a House Administration subcommittee, telling CNN he will examine how the “January 6 committee dropped the ball on what actually happened here in the Capitol.”

Republicans have consistently attempted to put the blame for the most serious attack on US democracy in decades on security failures rather than a president who incited an angry crowd with lies about election fraud and sent them marching to the Capitol with a call to “fight like hell” ringing in their ears.

But the MAGA wing of the party’s rewriting of the history of January 6 threatens to perpetuate the very anti-democratic extremism that contributed to Trump’s 2020 election loss and that alienated swing-state voters in the 2022 midterms, thereby saddling McCarthy with such a thin majority.

Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington state, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the 2021 insurrection, told CNN Wednesday that Fox News and some in his party were wrong to try to rewrite what happened on January 6.

“It’s a revisionist thing that I think is unfair to the American people,” he said.

The radical House Republicans using their power to try to reshape the narrative about Trump’s assault on democracy, just as he takes a new tilt at the White House, do not just reflect the character of the new GOP majority.

It encapsulates the compromises that McCarthy has made to win power. But on Ukraine and debt at least, the time may be approaching when he faces painful choices that could decide how long he can keep the job he fought so hard to win – and that will shape America’s future at home and abroad.