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Underneath the Bipartisan Meeting with Tsai Lurks McCarthy’s Partisan Agenda

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Underneath the Bipartisan Meeting with Tsai Lurks McCarthy’s Partisan Agenda

Despite emphasizing his commitment to bipartisanship, Kevin McCarthy’s current top priority is promoting partisan legislation and cementing Republicans as tough on China. 

Underneath the Bipartisan Meeting with Tsai Lurks McCarthy’s Partisan Agenda

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy make a joint press appearance after their meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Apr. 5, 2023.

Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy received widespread praise for his high-stakes meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen amid a barrage of intimidation from the Chinese Communist Party. Unlike his predecessor Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year, McCarthy choreographed his meeting with Tsai in a distinctly bipartisan fashion, which has earned him accolades from both sides of the aisle – including from Pelosi, with whom he shares a strained relationship.

However, a closer examination of the bipartisan unity on Taiwan reveals McCarthy’s underlying partisan motivations.

Since his first day as the speaker, McCarthy has reiterated his commitment to assuaging the partisan division in Congress, particularly with regard to issues concerning China. He seems to have kept his word by refraining from playing the “Taiwan card,” which he accused Pelosi of doing last year. By doing so, McCarthy has projected a statesmanlike image and contrasted himself with Pelosi’s perceived partisan behavior. However, the accusation he made against Pelosi of not taking any Republicans with her to Taiwan was unfounded – an invitation was extended to Republican lawmakers by Pelosi, but no one accepted it.

McCarthy was shrewd enough not to jump into the partisan trap he set for Pelosi and the Democrats. Instead, by building a cross-party coalition for Taiwan, McCarthy scored significant political points, which would have been unlikely if he had taken a more overtly partisan approach.

Despite emphasizing his commitment to bipartisanship, McCarthy’s current top priority is none other than a partisan one – promoting the Lower Energy Cost Act. McCarthy billed the legislation as H.R.1 to underscore its importance to Congress, or more precisely, to the Republicans. Even though the bill passed on the House floor with so-called bipartisan support, the vote was cast almost entirely along the party lines, with only four Democrats voting yes. Furthermore, among the 49 cosponsors of the bill, none is from the Democratic Party.

It hence can be expected that such a highly partisan bill can hardly advance in a Democrat-controlled Senate. McCarthy was fully aware of the situation from the very beginning. To move forward with this partisan bill for the GOP, he has to play the bipartisan card first. The opportunity to meet with Tsai is nothing short of a ray of hope for his agenda.

It remains to be seen whether McCarthy’s bipartisan efforts for Taiwan will substantively help advance H.R.1, but they provide key ingredients for achieving his objective. First, cross-party interactions are necessary to build support for a highly partisan bill like the Lower Energy Cost Act. McCarthy’s bipartisan Taiwan engagement provided a less intense platform where lawmakers across the aisle can interact with each other amid the current partisan tensions – not just at the press conference but behind the scenes as well.

Second, McCarthy himself has garnered a swath of positive coverage from left-leaning media, allowing him to skillfully promote H.R.1 alongside support for Taiwan. For example, in an interview with MSNBC, McCarthy proposed policies that could be pursued to support Taiwan, including fostering a better economy with technology for America. While this policy can hardly be interpreted as a direct effort to strengthen Taiwan-U.S. ties, it conveniently aligns with some key ideas of the Lower Energy Cost Act, which advocates for the development of energy technologies to reduce energy costs. McCarthy also framed H.R.1 as a tool to counter China in the energy sector, making its potential passage seem like an achievement derived from the bipartisan support for Taiwan in the name of peace, freedom, and democracy.

The successful bipartisan unity on Taiwan policy could have spillover effects on the stagnant China Select Committee, injecting much-needed momentum into the effort to advance countermeasures against China. Over the three months since its establishment, the committee has made little progress in advancing any substantive China bills, and its only hearing was mired in partisan divide over the TikTok issue. McCarthy may have decorated the committee with his bipartisan rhetoric, but with the committee’s founding by a Republican House speaker and its chairmanship by a Republican representative, the GOP will ultimately be held accountable for its success or failure.

McCarthy understands that merely criticizing the Democrats or producing performative legislation targeting China will not be enough to underscore the GOP’s perceived advantage in dealing with foreign policy. For the Republicans, a definitive bill to counter China with concrete law-binding provisions is desperately needed. So far, the most feasible bill in this regard is the TikTok legislation. Despite its controversy, the bill has still received some support from Democrats, including the Biden administration. McCarthy’s bipartisan approach Taiwan could serve as an ice-breaker for the tensions involving the TikTok issue, providing opportunities for the GOP to win more support across the aisle and advance its China policy in a more effective manner.

McCarthy’s bipartisan embrace of Taiwan has also brought himself and the GOP closer to the center on foreign policy. Previously, McCarthy had exhibited his intention to cut support for Ukraine before the 2022 mid-term elections. He reiterated that stance one month ago through his rejection of an invitation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to visit the embattled country.

However, during his meeting with Tsai, McCarthy described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a consequence of insufficient U.S. weapon supply to the country, advocating more arms sales to both Ukraine and Taiwan for their self-defense. Considering Democrats’ criticism of his remarks on Ukraine, McCarthy’s about-face on his Ukraine policy is undoubtedly a strategic compromise he made to assemble the bipartisan union for Taiwan. At the same time, it also signifies his newfound ability to break free from the hold Republican anti-interventionists have over him. This provides him with more flexibility to use foreign policy as a tool to advance his agenda under a carefully constructed bipartisan framework.

Amid the former President Donald Trump’s indictment, McCarthy’s meeting with Tsai came at an opportune time. His bipartisan approach not only helped the GOP distance itself from Trump’s scandal, but also supported the party’s legislative agenda in the near term. If the Republicans learned anything from their worse-than-expected results in the 2022 mid-term elections, it is that excessive partisanship could backfire. After a taste of a real bipartisan victory, McCarthy will be encouraged to keep using cross-strait issues, including a potential visit to Taiwan, to further the GOP’s agenda.