Republicans gave President Biden a late Christmas gift with their messy, drawn-out struggle to elect a House Speaker.
Biden called the drama, which finally ended with victory for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in an early Saturday morning 15th ballot, “embarrassing” and a bad look for the country. But Democratic strategists and White House officials see the House GOP’s disarray as an easy opportunity for contrast — and an issue where Biden can make political hay as he prepares a reelection campaign.
“When your foe is lighting themselves on fire, don’t hand them a hose,” said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the centrist think tank Third Way.
“The White House keeping their distance, I think, is smart,” Bennett continued. “Say these people are irresponsible and they do not take the task of governing seriously. It’s very easy to do that with this episode. But it will allow them to do the same when they try to impeach [Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro] Mayorkas and drag Biden’s son through the mud. So it really provides amplification to the idea that anything they’re doing is irresponsible.”
The House this week saw a Speaker selection go beyond a single ballot for the first time in a century as McCarthy struggled to secure the support of a handful of GOP holdouts who denied him a majority of the chamber while Democrats stayed united behind Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). Though McCarthy eventually prevailed, the protracted fight led to days of bad headlines and optics for Republicans, and it leaves the California lawmaker with a tenuous grasp on the gavel.
Biden and other White House officials avoided throwing any lifelines to House Republicans, saying it was McCarthy’s problem to figure out. But the president has rarely missed an opportunity in recent days to remind the public of the consequences of the House GOP’s infighting.
“One, it’s embarrassing for the country. I mean, literally,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s just the reality is that, you know, to … have a Congress that can’t function is just embarrassing. We’re the greatest nation in the world. How can that be?”
“And we’ve had a lot of trouble with … the attacks on our institutions already,” Biden added. “And it’s just, that’s what worries me more than anything else.”
With no members sworn in, there were no committees meeting, giving Biden and his administration a brief reprieve from Republicans’ planned investigations into sensitive issues such as the Afghanistan withdrawal, the southern border or Hunter Biden.
Members on intelligence and military panels have been unable to get classified briefings about important national security matters since they are not technically part of the new Congress yet.
Biden ran for president on a platform of restoring basic competence to the Oval Office after four tumultuous years, and White House officials have spent the last few weeks emphasizing his willingness to reach across the aisle and the lengthy list of legislation he signed during his first two years in office.
The president and his top aides have in recent days projected confidence and assured the public that the White House would be there to ensure the work of government gets done while the House GOP gets its act together.
“Here’s the thing. We hope that the House resolves this soon. It has been a couple of days now. And we have important work to do for the American people,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday. “And so, we have to get back to work here. But of course the administration is going to continue to do everything we can to ensure that the House of Reps are kept informed and have what they need.”
John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council, downplayed any national security risks that might stem for members being unable to get classified briefings.
Biden, meanwhile, traveled to Kentucky this week to tout how funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law passed in 2021 would be used to upgrade a major bridge over the Ohio River. He was joined there by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a not-so-subtle split-screen image as House lawmakers were casting yet another unsuccessful round of votes to elect a Speaker.
Democrats were publicly frustrated that Republicans prevented the House from getting to work, but they also believe it reflects the broader reality that the GOP should not be trusted by voters to govern effectively.
White House allies believe the situation only strengthened Biden’s hand at a time when attention is shifting to the 2024 presidential campaign. Biden is expected to formally announce his plan to run for reelection in the coming months, and strategists believe he can use this week’s squabbling among House Republicans to his advantage when speaking to voters.
“The only upside to all this lunacy is they’re going to show America who they are,” said Bennett, the Third Way co-founder. “When we’re faced with a seminal vote in 2024, that’s going to matter.”