Kevin McCarthy’s rocky road to speakership raises questions of authority ahead of first test


The dust has barely settled from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s historic battle to win the speaker’s gavel and the California Republican already faces the first test of his leadership: passing on Monday the rules package that helped mollify his Republican foes.

The rules that will govern the chamber are hitting opposition from Mr. McCarthy’s allies in the House Republican Conference who fear he ceded too much of the speaker’s power to win the top job.

Details of the concessions that he made to members of the conservative Freedom Caucus are murky, an ambiguity that could cause some Republicans in his slim majority to balk unless more of the backroom negotiations are brought to light.

The deals that are known include reverting to a measure that weakens the speaker’s power by allowing any one member to force a vote on vacating the chair; reinstating the ability for lawmakers to offer amendments on appropriations bills; mandating a 72-hour window to review legislation before a vote; and promising to vote on a bill to invoke term limits on members of Congress.

“We were trying to stand up for rank-and-file members, because too often … bills are cooked up with a handful of people, they’re brought through to the Rules Committee, jammed through, put on the floor, and you have to vote yes or no,” Rep. Chip Roy, Texas Republican and a defector who ultimately voted for Mr. McCarthy on the final ballot, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Mr. McCarthy also agreed to cap spending at 2022 levels for fiscal year 2024, to create a subcommittee to investigate the Justice Department and to put more Freedom Caucus representation on certain committees.

SEE ALSO: Chip Roy warns McCarthy that GOP will ‘enforce’ deal to secure speakership

But while he successfully flipped enough conservative holdouts, more moderate members have heartburn that voting for the forthcoming rules package will mean signing over too much power to the right wing of the conference.

“My question really is: what backroom deals did they try to cut, and did they get those?” Rep. Nancy Mace, South Carolina Republican, told CBS News.

“We don’t know what they got, we haven’t seen it. We don’t have any idea what … gentleman’s handshakes were made. And it does give me a little bit of heartburn because that’s not what we ran on,” she said Sunday on “Face the Nation.”

Mr. McCarthy is confronted with the same hurdle in the rules vote that he struggled to clear in the speaker election.

With no Democrats likely to help pass new rules written by Republicans, Mr. McCarthy can’t lose more than four GOP members to pass the package.

The struggle to elect Mr. McCarthy was one of the most contentious in the post-Civil War era, taking 15 ballots on five days. It even featured a near brawl on the House floor when Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, a McCarthy ally, was physically pulled away by a colleague after confronting Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a McCarthy foe.

SEE ALSO: Trump claims credit for McCarthy winning speaker’s gavel

The intraparty squabbling raised eyebrows about whether Mr. McCarthy will have the authority and support he needs to govern effectively with a five-member majority over the next two years as he faces pushback from his right flank and a Democratic-controlled Senate.

His most ardent supporters described that as nonsense, predicting that the Republican conference will come together to take on Democrats.

“Sometimes democracy is messy, but I would argue that’s exactly how the Founders intended it. They wanted real debate, real input from all people and then you get a decision,” Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We will come together to deal with how radical the left has now made the Democrat Party.”

Ms. Mace wasn’t so sure.

In her interview with CBS, she called Mr. Gaetz a “fraud” whose public grandstanding was a ploy for campaign fundraising.

“It’s going to be very difficult,” she said. “What you saw last week was a constitutional process diminished … I am concerned that common sense legislation will not get through to get a vote on the floor.”

Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Texas Republican who supported Mr. McCarthy, dealt a major blow to the speaker by saying he will not vote for the rules package because it paves the way to cut the Pentagon’s budget as a broader effort to rein in government spending. That means Mr. McCarthy can only afford three other Republican defectors in order for it to pass.

“The speaker vote is the easiest vote we’ll take in Congress. And it was pretty chaotic. The rules package is the next easiest vote,” Mr. Gonzales said on “Face the Nation.” “This is only the beginning. And with such a small minority, Republicans are much different than Democrats. We’re not just going to line up and jump off the cliff.”

Mr. McCarthy will face several heavy lifts this year when it comes to must-pass legislation to fund the government and raise the nation’s debt ceiling to avoid defaulting, teeing up contentious battles with both fiscal hawks in his own party and Senate Democrats.

“It’s going to be ugly. The White House is a dumpster fire. You look at the Senate, the Senate is chaotic. You look at the House — if you’re an American, sitting down watching TV, you’re going, ‘where [has] this country gone?’” Mr. Gonzales said. “What I see is there’s nothing but politicians getting up here and grandstanding. It’s time for leadership.”

Mr. McCarthy won the speakership early Saturday morning on a second round of late-night votes after negotiating for days with what began as a group of 20 conservative holdouts.

But the victory came only after tensions reached a breaking point.

Mr. McCarthy unexpectedly fell one vote short on the first Friday night ballot, leading to tense public arm-twisting on the House floor and the altercation between Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Rogers broadcast live on television.

The holdout faction had shrunk by more than half on the first ballot that evening thanks to some voting “present,” but not enough to make Mr. McCarthy’s predictions come true that he had the votes.

However, on the second late-night ballot, enough of the remaining conservative holdouts voted “present,” allowing the required majority threshold to drop and Mr. McCarthy to clench the speaker’s title.

The vote was met with raucous cheers from the GOP side of the chamber followed shortly after by the official start of the House’s business under the 118th Congress with the swearing-in of all members.

The lawmakers had been waiting since the opening day of Congress on Tuesday to take the oath of office and begin their two-year terms but could not start officially until the speaker was elected.


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