It’s been six months since Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was elected Speaker of the House following a marathon 15 rounds of voting — the most rounds needed since 1923, when it took nine votes to confirm Massachusetts Rep. Fredrick Huntington Gillett's speakership a century ago.
From the beginning, the battle over McCarthy's speakership raised questions about whether he would be able to wrangle a caucus with members who were willing to openly oppose him on the House floor. With such a slim majority, McCarthy can only lose five votes at any given time, giving some outspoken members a great deal of power.
Half a year into his speakership, McCarthy has proven himself able to secure wins for the GOP in bipartisan negotiations. The continuing challenge, of course, is ensuring he can keep the most volatile members of his party on his side.
“The thing you have to do is you respect all the different views in the conference, and you bring people together," McCarthy told Spectrum News in March in an exclusive interview. "So as long as somebody has a say, that should be fair."
“At the end of the day, you have to make a decision, but as long as you're able to have your input and you listen to everybody, it's easier to bring people together," he said. "Using your ears never gets you in trouble, right?”
As McCarthy marks six months on the job, he has secured a number of victories for the Republican conference. He shepherded the Secure the Border Act through the House, which he calls the “strongest border security bill to come through Congress in more than 100 years.” He gained bipartisan support in his effort to overturn a Washington, D.C., criminal code that would have modified sentencing guidelines that President Joe Biden signed into law, and successfully proposed and passed the Limit, Save, Grow Act, a bill to raise the debt ceiling while simultaneously cutting spending through the House.
The debt limit crisis is where McCarthy hit the true first hurdle of his leadership: the Limit, Save, Grow Act was dead on arrival in the Senate and Biden promised to veto it if necessary. With a looming default on the horizon, McCarthy spent months trying to meet with Biden to negotiate a deal. Their first meeting in February signaled that there would be more discussions between the two principles.
McCarthy claims it was radio silence for 97 days.
“We've spent more than we've ever spent before and we have the highest debt than we ever have. I just don't think that's right,” said McCarthy to reporters during the debt ceiling negotiations. “I said to the president, everything else is on the table. For 97 days he wouldn't talk to me. So we passed the bill. Getting everything in our bill.”
McCarthy’s bill received overwhelming support from Republicans, with House Freedom Caucus members applauding the bill and the speaker’s leadership. But once McCarthy started — then finalized — negotiations with the White House on the Fiscal Responsibility Act, far-right members changed their tune.
"Not one Republican should vote for this deal, it is a bad deal," Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said at press conference the day before the bill was to be considered on the House floor. "We will continue to fight it today, tomorrow, and no matter what happens, there's going to be a reckoning about what just occurred, unless we stop this bill by tomorrow.”
The bill, since signed into law by President Biden, put in place tougher work requirements for recipients of government aid, a key Republican priority. The measure ensures people ages 49-54 with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits — formerly known as food stamps — would have to meet work requirements if they are able-bodied and without dependents. Biden was able to secure waivers for veterans and people experiencing homelessness.
The measure also codifies an end to the pause on student loan repayments for Aug. 29, 2023 — which, per a memo obtained by Spectrum News from a Democratic source, Biden was planning to do on Sept. 1 anyway. It also makes slight reforms to the National Environmental Policy Act by designating a "a single lead agency" to conduct environmental reviews, in an effort to streamline some energy and infrastructure projects.
The bill reclaims roughly $30 billion in unspent COVID-19 relief funds, while preserving measures like $5 billion in funding for Project Next Gen, the Biden administration's coronavirus vaccine development program, as well as halted some funds directed toward the IRS.
“Is it everything I wanted? No,” admitted McCarthy in a press conference following the bill’s passage in the House. “Sitting with one House, with a Democratic Senate and a Democratic President who didn’t want to meet with us, I think we did pretty dang good for the American public.”
The wrath became so severe, at least one member began to vocally ponder a motion to vacate the chair. Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., said he had no confidence in McCarthy’s leadership.
“None. Zero. What basis is there for confidence?” questioned Bishop. “You cannot forfeit the tool of Republican unity.”
Bishop was one of the dissenters against McCarthy in January, and said he would only move on the motion to vacate in conjunction with others. So far, no one has publicly joined in on Bishop’s calls for removal.
“Some of these folks who are talking about removing McCarthy are members of the Freedom Caucus, but other members of the caucus are telling them no, don't do that. I'm not going to support it. It's not a good idea,” said Matt Green, a Catholic University professor who studies congressional leadership. “I think what they recognize is that McCarthy has support in the party, I think they also realized that not only would it fail, but in doing so if it failed, it would weaken the caucus, and it would make that motion look even less effective.”
McCarthy will need to continue to do is build trust within the conference in the wake of this bipartisan deal.
“Trust was broken in the way it was negotiated. That was basically negotiated with a few negotiators for the President and two negotiators for the speaker of the house. That's all the people that had a seat at the table,” said Rep. Keith Self, R-Texas. “I think the speaker needs to work to get back to a unified Republican Conference.”
“If we have unity in the Republican conference, even with our small majority, we can do great things,” Self added. “There's no doubt about it ... we can produce strong bills, if we just stay together.”
Some far-right members continued to show their displeasure with the deal this week, by grinding floor proceedings to a halt when a group of 11 Republicans joined Democrats in rejecting the vote on the rules to advance two messaging bills by Republicans on gas stoves.
It’s the first time a rules vote has been tanked by the majority party in 21 years.
“We took down the rule because we’re frustrated at the way this place is operating,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., told reporters on the steps of the Capitol after the vote. “We’re concerned that the fundamental commitments that allowed McCarthy to assume the speakership have been violated.”
After postponing votes for the rest of the week and sending members home for a long weekend to let tempers settle, McCarthy met with some of those 11 members Wednesday night to try and smooth over some of the frustrations.
“You gotta be sure you come together as a family otherwise we won’t be successful for the American people. Who are you here for? Are you here for yourself or are you here for the American public? We want you to have a voice. We want you to have it. You aren’t going to get 100 percent of what you want so you can’t take hostages,” said McCarthy.
Despite the loud defectors, allies such as Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., say the conference remains squarely behind McCarthy.
“The overwhelming majority of the conference is proud of the work that Speaker McCarthy has done, understands that we have real work to do, and knows that he's the right guy to lead us forward,” said Johnson. “I expect in the next couple of days, we'll get everybody on the same page. And we'll be able to turn our attention toward the appropriations bills toward the Farm Bill toward the annual defense authorization bill, and toward the other work that we got to get done here this year in Congress.”
“Sometimes tempers flare, but ultimately, I think in a week, this is all going to be ancient history. Most of us are really interested in getting back to work,” Johnson said, downplaying this week’s floor shutdown. “A couple three day delay in dealing with important bills is annoying, but we wouldn't want to overstate the impact of it either.”
As for Green, who has studied the trials Speakers Boehner and Ryan faced especially when it came to their own eventual ousters, sees the deal McCarthy was able to broker for his party as “excellent,” considering the hand he was dealt, and considers discussion of the motion to vacate “extremely unlikely.”
“Not a lot of people inside the beltway thought that McCarthy was up to the task. And he had to do it pretty much by himself within the House because the Senate, Senate Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell said, we're not going to get involved, it's entirely up to the speaker,” explained Green.
“McCarthy really proved his ability to sit down with, with the president of the opposite party, give a little, get a little, come to an agreement. And it's that kind of success that I think speaks well for McCarthy's ability to represent his party in bipartisan negotiations going forward.”