Speaker Kevin McCarthy kicked off a closed-door meeting on Tuesday morning with a plea to his members: Let’s move on from last week’s debt ceiling drama and focus on the “next play.”
A bloc of Republican hardliners had different ideas.
Hours later, a band of 10 rebels took down the GOP leadership’s push to move on two bills this week, an extraordinary move they said was retaliation for McCarthy’s deal with President Joe Biden to suspend the national debt limit.
The revolt underscored the fragility of McCarthy’s narrow majority and the lingering tensions with the right-wing of his conference over the debt deal. But the protest also indicated that the members have not yet decided on whether to call for a vote ousting McCarthy from the speakership, something that would rip apart the House GOP and send the chamber into chaos.
For now, the conservatives have settled on a strategy to scramble McCarthy’s legislative agenda until they believe he will listen to their list of demands. And they argue that McCarthy blatantly violated a deal he cut in January to assume the speakership on the 15th ballot, though all the details of that agreement were never publicly released and the speaker insists he’s lived up to those promises.
“Today we took down the rule because we’re frustrated at the way this place is operating,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, told reporters on the steps of the Capitol. “We took a stand in January to end the era of the imperial speakership. We’re concerned that the fundamental commitments that allowed Kevin McCarthy to assume the speakership have been violated as a consequence of the debt limit deal, and, you know, the answer for us is to reassert House conservatives as the appropriate coalition partner for our leadership, instead of them making common cause with Democrats.”
The procedural vote failed 206-220, an embarrassing and rare floor defeat for leadership that effectively sank legislation to ban the prohibition of gas stoves and to impose new congressional oversight on federal rules. A procedural vote – known as a House rule, which sets parameters for floor debate – typically pass with the support of the majority party. The last time a rule failed in the chamber was in 2002.
Republican leadership was not given a heads-up about the floor revolt, according to GOP sources. Leaders scrambled to resolve the issue on the floor and were seen in animated conversations with the holdouts for nearly an hour. But the vote ultimately failed and leadership was forced to recess the House chamber, leaving the GOP’s legislative agenda in limbo.
It was unclear how long the conservatives planned to mount the protest or what their next steps were. They said they wanted McCarthy to ensure that the next round of funding bills rolls back domestic funding to 2022 spending levels, a position resisted by Democrats and some in their own party. And some of the Republican critics said they were angry that the leadership seemed to scuttle legislation by Rep. Andrew Clyde, believing it was retaliation for the Georgia Republican’s opposition to the debt ceiling deal, though the leadership denied that charge.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise warned Clyde in a phone call last week that if he voted against a rule for the debt ceiling bill, then it could be harder to get Republican votes for his pistol brace resolution, according to two sources familiar with the exchange.
One of those sources said the majority leader was simply warning Clyde there could be backlash from his colleagues if he opposed the debt ceiling rule. The source also said the reason that Clyde’s resolution didn’t come to the floor this week is because the bill had whip count issues that were still being worked out, and leadership wanted to ensure it would pass.
But Clyde publicly said a member of leadership threatened him with retaliation, which is one of the big reasons why a band of hardliners tanked Tuesday’s rule, leading to animated discussions on the floor between Scalise, hardliners and other members of leadership.
Afterward, Clyde huddled with Scalise, and then told reporters that leadership promised to bring his legislation – a resolution to block the ATF’s pistol brace rule – to the floor next week. Clyde, who was not one the 10 Republicans who opposed Tuesday’s rule, said he was “satisfied” with the result.
But when asked about his level of confidence in McCarthy, Clyde said, “Same as it was yesterday.”
The ongoing drama speaks to the growing tension between McCarthy and his allies and the small bloc of hardliners vowing to make his speakership more difficult. It takes just five Republicans to derail an agenda that moves along party lines in the narrowly divided chamber.
The battle spilled out behind closed doors earlier in the day on Tuesday as well – with McCarthy allies criticizing their colleagues for trying to sink the rule on the debt limit bill last week and threatening to do it again. Leadership also sought to heal the lingering divisions by convening a meeting Tuesday of the so-called “five families,” which includes all the various ideological groups inside the GOP, according to a Republican source. But tensions were still running high on Tuesday.
“A minority in the conference thinks we can demand and get what we want despite having a Democrat president and Democrat-run Senate,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican. “We got the best deal possible in divided government. This is how James Madison designed it. The speaker stressed today we got the best deal possible with largest spending cut in history. It’s time to move forward and concentrate on the ‘next play.’”
The conservatives though are undeterred.
“We also will enforce the agreement that we reached in January, under which, Kevin McCarthy assumed the speakership,” said Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina. “It will be performed and will reforge Republican unity, because as you’re seeing right now, the majority cannot function without unity. And so to pull a pin on the grenade and rolling them under the tent of Republican unity, as was done last year in the debt ceiling – last week.”
Asked if they would continue to scuttle the agenda, the conservatives would not say. Hardball floor tactics have long been a staple of the House Freedom Caucus, who said they have other tricks up their sleeve to hold McCarthy’s feet to the fire.
“What we plan to do is to be ready at all points in time, acting in good faith to reforge the unity that was destroyed last week,” Bishop said. “And so what happens depends on how leadership is inclined to reciprocate and proceed.”
Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert added: “This is what we fought for in January, and we were serious when we did it. We said ‘Congress is broken. And we want fundamental changes to this place.’ That’s what we all came here for.”
Pressed on their end game, GOP Rep. Chip Roy of Texas said: “The end game is freedom, less government, less spending.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.