Centrist Dems leave McCarthy hanging without a lifeline

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House Democratic centrists held the key to bailing out Kevin McCarthy. Yet in the end, he gave them no incentive to salvage his besieged speakership.

Most House Democrats were skeptical of the idea that they might save McCarthy from the hard-right rebellion that flared into his Tuesday ouster. Distrust of the now-former GOP speaker runs deep in the caucus, over everything from McCarthy's push to impeach President Joe Biden to his courtship of former President Donald Trump after the violent Capitol riot.

Even so, a small band of old-school Democratic moderates kept backchannels open with the GOP throughout McCarthy's reign. They talked about possibly bailing out the speaker over dinners, during House gym workouts and on the floor. These centrists had several reasons to keep talking with Republicans: They wanted to avoid the further chaos that deposing the speaker could cause, they have good relationships with McCarthy and — perhaps most importantly — they saw the makings of a bipartisan deal.

Any hope among Democratic moderates to extract concessions from McCarthy ultimately ran into a major problem, though: He couldn't afford any capitulating to Democrats. While centrists had speculated about what they could get from the speaker, McCarthy and his allies indicated that their final offer was, essentially, nothing.

Nothing except — maybe — a temporary reprieve from the churn of crisis that's defined the House's McCarthy era so far.

"I think that there are a number of people that care about the institution and very much see through what this is," said Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a loyal McCarthy ally, when asked about support from across the aisle before the speaker was ejected.

But that simply wasn't enough for Democrats. By relying on them to avoid a government shutdown, McCarthy somewhat ironically eliminated their single biggest reason to help him avoid the knifing he took on the floor.

There's an even simpler reason that the party’s most vulnerable Democrats didn't feel compelled to help: McCarthy, as the party’s biggest fundraiser, is also their biggest political foe.

“It's clear he has placed his speakership exclusively in the hands of his conference — which is unfortunate for the country, for he could have ascended from speaker of the majority to a true speaker of the House,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), one of the centrists who would have been willing to bail out the speaker under different circumstances.

What’s more, centrist Democrats are loyal to Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who spoke with McCarthy on Monday night as the speaker ejection vote drew closer. The New York Democrat urged his caucus to keep their McCarthy plans under wraps ahead of Tuesday afternoon's vote before ultimately whipping against the Republican; the party's leadership team reached out to some centrists on Monday to make that request, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), for instance, had suggested he might throw McCarthy a lifeline by voting “present” after the speaker pushed through a bipartisan spending bill on Saturday. But by Tuesday, he had turned against McCarthy.

Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), a leader in the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, said in a Tuesday statement that McCarthy is "not the leader I would choose — he doesn’t have the pulse of the people of Maine’s Second District. Absent any significantly meaningful benefit for Maine’s Second District, I see no reason to vote for him.”

Democrats held off before formally whipping Tuesday’s vote on McCarthy’s future and kept all their members united against him.

The push for Democratic cohesion strengthened further during Tuesday’s roughly 90-minute caucus meeting, hours before McCarthy planned to force the House to issue its verdict on his rule. Democratic leaders were so intent on keeping their deliberations secret that members’ cell phones were kept out of the room.

Lawmakers who attended, though, described it as a show of unity for Jeffries and the party.

“He got himself into this mess,” Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), a leader in the centrist New Democrat Coalition, said hours before Tuesday's vote. "It’s going to be up to McCarthy to get himself out."

Still, some Republicans continued to reach out to their Democratic colleagues on Tuesday as their vote-counting began to underscore that it might have only taken one or two defections to save the speaker.

Rank-and-file McCarthy allies reached out to Democrats in groups like the Problem Solvers Caucus — which met earlier Tuesday — to gauge what they want in exchange for a possible deal to preserve his power, according to one House GOP lawmaker. Those efforts fell short.

One Democratic source, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity, said the speaker's backers were calling members in the opposing party "begging" them to vote for McCarthy.

Meredith Lee Hill and Daniella Diaz contributed to this report.