Some of the promises were easy to keep. New House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has already appointed his one-time detractors to high-profile committees and sprinkled favors among the others. But other promises he made to secure the post strike observers as next-to impossible, begging the question: What happens to McCarthy if he breaks them?
Those reaping the benefit of the late nights and backroom deals that defined McCarthy’s quest for speaker include Representatives Andy Biggs of Arizona, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, all of whom opposed McCarthy initially and subsequently were named to the marquee investigatory Oversight and Accountability Committee.
Representative Byron Donalds of Florida, who was the rebels’ candidate for speaker at one point during the drawn-out process, was given a post on the internal panel that makes recommendations on matters such as committee assignments and on the prestigious House Financial Services Committee.
And perhaps most consequentially, McCarthy nominated three conservatives to the powerful House Rules Committee, first reported by Punchbowl News, selecting hardliners Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Chip Roy of Texas, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky. The three could form a bloc with Democrats to oppose any legislation or amendments they don’t like and that Democrats also oppose, effectively preventing it from going to the floor for a vote.
Beyond committee assignments, McCarthy pledged to bring to a vote controversial bills that would likely fail, like one that would abolish the entire tax code and replace it with a national sales tax.
A final factor complicating all of these decisions is the fact that one of his largest concessions restored the ability of any single House member to call for a snap vote to oust the speaker through a procedural vote called the motion to vacate.
And while it was routine for Democrats to get around their own burdensome rules by simply waiving them when it came time to pass big bills, McCarthy’s critics made it clear he would not have access to some of the tricks his predecessor, Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi, used to get out of legislative jams.
“Democrats didn’t have a motion to vacate,” said Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what promises McCarthy made to win the gavel. Rumors floated around the Hill for days about a three-page “addendum” to the rules package that included some of the most intense negotiations with his detractors, but it’s not clear if such a document exists. But even the public parts of the agreement appear open to interpretation, especially contentious spending cuts that conservatives say should be required before taking votes on must-pass items including raising the debt limit to avoid default or keeping government open with funding.
“I think he doesn’t have to promise that necessarily these votes, these bills will pass,” said California Republican Representative Doug LaMalfa, a McCarthy ally. “I think what folks want to see is an effort.”
But Roy, who was one of the lead negotiators with McCarthy on behalf of the faction initially opposing him, indicated that conservatives intend to hold the speaker to what they understood to be his word.
“We agreed to these understandings on spending,” Roy said. “We’ve agreed that we need a Rules Committee that will enforce those rules. We shouldn’t waive them. ... So we’re gonna enforce the rules and we’re gonna enforce the need to get the job done right.”
That ambiguity in promises made, which may have been just enough for McCarthy to squeak by in the speaker race, may also come back to bite him, said Brendan Buck, a former aide to two Republican House speakers.
“People hear what they want to hear,” Buck said. “Some people hear, ‘it’s a vote,’ some people hear, ‘it’s a promise in blood.’ And if it’s the latter, there will be hell to pay.”
With committee assignments done, other tests for McCarthy will unfold over the next several weeks, as lawmakers wrangle to get votes on their wishlist agenda items, such as border security policy. But most experts believe the year will crescendo when it’s time to raise the debt limit, at the risk of an economy-shattering default. Republicans insist that any debt limit raise should come with spending cuts, and the hardliners who opposed McCarthy’s bid have said this should be a firm line in the sand. Democrats, meanwhile, who control the Senate and White House, are behind President Biden’s position that, since the debt limit has been reached because of money already spent, negotiating over raising it is a non-starter.
Navigating through that quagmire will require a compromise, given the divided government in Washington. McCarthy, who can only lose four GOP votes on anything without needing Democratic support, will at some point have to cut a deal. But making such agreements with Democrats on must-pass items like government funding was what turned the right against his two immediate GOP predecessors.
“Nobody’s ever going to say to Kevin, ‘Well you gave it a good try, let’s go cut a deal with Democrats,’” said Buck, who worked for both of the predecessors, John Boehner and Paul Ryan. “The mindset is always, ‘If you just fought harder, we could have gotten what we wanted.’ It’s always been nonsense, it’s going to be nonsense this time, but there’s no reason to think they’re going to change their mindset on it.”
The conservatives who battled McCarthy and his moderate allies right now are projecting optimism. Norman, who voted against McCarthy until the Californian made agreements with the right, had laid out his needs for a speaker during the week of votes.
“We want somebody that will go to the mat,” Norman told reporters on the first day of speaker voting. “In nine months we’ll have another debt ceiling crisis, if you call it that. We need somebody that will shut the government down, not keep taking spending that is ruining this country.”
The following week, with McCarthy firmly in the speaker’s office, Norman said that McCarthy had agreed to balance the budget in 10 years and to stick to his assurances of passing future spending cuts before lifting the debt ceiling.
“The gnashing of teeth will be when we start doing the appropriations, but we’ve agreed and I think he’ll stick with that and that’s a great thing,” Norman said. “No one can guarantee winning the fight with the Senate. But now what we can do is not pass any of their bills until they get something. ... We will get the cuts.”
Others aren’t so sure. Buck doubts the House GOP will even be able to pass all 12 bills that make up the full government funding package in their chamber, let alone get them through Congress. And the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to advance legislation, requiring bipartisan agreement, has meant for years that the upper chamber dictates the scope of legislation, given the relative ease of getting through the House’s simple majority.
“The Senate doesn’t care who’s in the majority over here,” said Representative Mark Amodei of Nevada, a moderate Republican, told reporters. “They give it the same amount of respect, whether it’s (Republican) Paul Ryan or Nancy Pelosi.”
California Republican Darrell Issa noted that when past speakers had to cut deals with Democrats, it was usually because Republicans couldn’t reach agreement among themselves to give them a stronger hand in negotiations.
“It does beg the question of, what will happen when we have to appropriate?” Issa said in the midst of the speaker uncertainty. “Will we come together to do the most conservative appropriations that we can? Or will we force whoever the speaker is, regardless of how they get there, to have to go to the other side to get the rest of the votes, as John Boehner did repeatedly.”