A Former House Moderate Republican Warns of Lasting Damage in Speaker Fight

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ALBANY, N.Y — Former Rep. John Katko is rooting for the Republican moderates as the House speaker fight drags on without a resolution in sight.

Katko cheered Republicans from New York who represent swing districts around the New York City area for opposing Rep. Jim Jordan’s bid for speaker. For him, it’s a sign that hardball tactics from the far right in the conference won’t always work.

Katko knows a lot about swing district politics: For four terms, he represented a battleground seat in the Syracuse area. He was willing to oppose fellow Republicans’ proposals for Obamacare and cast a vote to impeach former President Donald Trump following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In an interview with POLITICO, Katko lauded New York freshman Reps. Anthony D’Esposito, Nick LaLota and Mike Lawler as well as second-term New York lawmaker Andrew Garbarino for opposing Jordan’s bid on three ballots.

The narrow Republican majority in the House could hinge on whether those lawmakers are reelected next year because New York is a vital swing state in six races in 2024.

House Republicans on Monday are set to try again and find a new speaker with a field of nine candidates. But Katko is also worried the impasse will have long-lasting effects for Republicans going forward and has exposed deep divisions within the party.

The interview is edited for length and clarity.

Nick Reisman: Why is this happening now in the House?

John Katko: I think what’s happened is that a very small number of members of the far right took it upon themselves to use a motion to vacate, and they never had a plan for what would come after they were successful.

The chaos that’s ensued has really illuminated the divisions in the party. Not only has it illuminated them, it’s kind of deepened and hardened those divisions.

Now we’ve got a real problem because the moderates have finally pushed back and said enough’s enough. The far right feels falsely empowered because of concessions made to them by Kevin McCarthy to get the speakership.

They’ve just got to hope sanity will prevail at some point and someone will emerge to lead this group out of this mess. But make no mistake: There’s going to be a lot of scars in this fight and those scars are going to last a long time in the party.

Reisman: What are those scars going to look like?

Katko: I think it’s going to be harder to get some consensus on things, because the battle lines are now firmly drawn. Jordan did some damage with his heavy-handed tactics that turned off a lot of people. It’s going to take someone who is truly a great leader to emerge and cut through the nonsense so we can get some things done.

I can’t imagine, for example, them working through any bills of consequence given the divisions they have right now.

Reisman: That’s something of a problem right now, given the upheaval we’re seeing in the world right now in Ukraine and Israel.

Katko: If they get an aid package passed, someone from the far right could easily move to vacate the chair again. But they’ve got to try and lead, they’ve got to try and govern.

Reisman: What options exist for vulnerable freshmen from swing districts who didn’t support Jordan for speaker? What do they need to do?

Katko: They already made their stand. They showed their independence. They bucked the far right and stood up to their party. I think they’ve got a very good narrative going into the election year that they’re part of the solution, because they’re not going to allow the far right to take over the party.

Good for them. It’s going to help them going forward. For Lawler, D’Esposito, LaLota and Garbarino — those guys all stood firm and said we’re not taking this anymore from the far right. I dare say you even look at people like them and say they’re the heroes, because they prevented the party from going too far to the right.

Reisman: How would you describe the factions within the House Republican conference? Have they gotten worse since you were in office?

Katko: I think the far right had an overblown sense of self-importance that was sprung from concessions they wrung from Kevin. But now they’ve found out they’re not going to get their own way, and that’s a good thing.

What the far right figured out on this one is you can only push the moderates and other elements of the party so far before they’re going to stand up and push back. They did, and that’s why Jordan failed.

Reisman: Will the speaker fight cost the party control of the House next year?

Katko: I think it’s too early to tell, and it ultimately depends on whether Trump ends up as the nominee or not. I think Trump being the nominee is going to have a far greater negative impact on these seats than the shenanigans that have taken place in the House.

But make no mistake about it: The shenanigans that have taken place are not going to help. Trump being on the ticket in moderate districts is going to be a very, very difficult thing.

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