McCarthy’s biggest victory yet comes with political price

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) may have proven his bipartisan negotiating chops by steering a debt ceiling increase through a severely divided Congress, but it came with a price. 

Members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus and their allies are lashing out at the deal, saying it does not include steep enough spending cuts and that McCarthy should not have accepted suspending the debt ceiling beyond the 2024 presidential election, a key demand of President Biden.

The frustrations boiled over after the bill passed the House with more votes from Democrats (165) than Republicans (149).

McCarthy did win support from two-thirds of the House GOP conference — a real coup for the Speaker — but conservatives were up in arms that more Democrats backed the legislation, and that the minority party’s votes were required to pass the House rule that brought the final package to the floor. 

“My constituents are furious,” fumed Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who says his office has been inundated with calls in opposition to both the deal and McCarthy. 

“They are not only [saying], ‘Vote against this bill,’ but they are [saying], ‘Take McCarthy out.’ That’s what the calls are coming in.”

Buck stopped short of saying he will file a motion to vacate — the formal term for launching the process of removing a Speaker — but indicated that conservatives no longer trust McCarthy to negotiate through the appropriations process, which will reach a head in September, and that they will begin immediate talks about stripping his gavel.

“The discussion about the motion to vacate is going to happen in the next week or two,” Buck said Wednesday night. “The people in our [districts], outside the Beltway right now, are saying, ‘$4 trillion is too much, you’ve got to get a new Speaker.’”

Buck is not alone. 

Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) was the first conservative to promote the idea of toppling McCarthy after the debt ceiling deal was announced. And Chip Roy (R-Texas), another Freedom Caucus member, said the Speaker has some work to do to mend fences with his right flank.  

“There’s going to need to be a bit of a reckoning and a kind of review of how we’re organizing ourselves in order to get things done,” Roy said on Guy Benson’s Fox News radio program Thursday.

“They basically just cut the deal and then told us. And we had to react, because now we’re being asked to respond and vote on a deal that was cut, not with our approval. And I was happy to give him a lot of rope. You know, go out there, do what you can. But you got to kind of come back,” Roy said.

Roy said he has already spoken with McCarthy directly and plans to sit down with him again next week to talk further.

The open rebellion by the Freedom Caucus has been deeply disappointing to Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a lead GOP negotiator of the debt limit bill who has helped McCarthy manage the House GOP caucus’s “five families” – a reference to “The Godfather” – since the Speaker’s election. Graves was particularly bothered by the criticism from Roy, whom he said had come to respect.

“We have some relationship repair that needs to happen,” Graves said. “We’re going to need to sit down and talk and probably over several bottles of something initially.”

Hard-line Republicans have always been wary of McCarthy’s conservative bona fides.

They had helped to block McCarthy’s rise to the top of the GOP in 2015, when then-Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was forced to swoop in reluctantly to rescue the party from leadership chaos. And in January, they led the charge in opposition to McCarthy’s Speakership, agreeing to support the embattled leader only after he promised them a number of concessions, including a vow to hold the conservative line in budget negotiations with Biden. 

The bipartisan deal that hit the floor last week, however, was a far cry from the GOP debt ceiling bill that passed through the House last month, which featured a much smaller debt limit increase, much steeper spending cuts and a host of conservative policy provisions excluded in the final agreement with Biden. 

“I’m trying to figure out exactly what conservatives should be happy about,” said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), another Freedom Caucus member who voted against the package.

Still, Donalds is among those conservatives who are not calling for McCarthy’s scalp — at least not yet.

“We’ve not really had a discussion on that as a House Freedom Caucus,” he said. “He’s the Speaker of the House, so that’s the guy that we’re with. We’re going to roll with him. That’s my opinion.”

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), another sharp critic of the deal, echoed that message, saying she still has confidence in McCarthy.

“I disagree with him vehemently on this thing. … But we can agree to disagree on a lot of things,” she said. 

Amid the debate, McCarthy has found some allies on the right, including Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus founder who had opposed McCarthy’s leadership aspirations in 2015, and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a conservative firebrand who had been a sharp McCarthy critic in the last Congress.

Both lawmakers supported the debt ceiling deal, and both have emerged in recent days to blast their fellow conservatives for contemplating a bid to oust McCarthy. 

“It’d be a really dumb move,” Greene told reporters after the House vote. “I live in reality, not conservative fantasyland.” 

McCarthy, for his part, has acknowledged the agreement’s shortcomings from a conservative perspective and has sought to quell an internal uprising with vows to be more transparent in bipartisan negotiations to come. 

“Every day, I could wake up and improve. There’s so many times I stumble as we go,” McCarthy said after the vote. “It’s difficult in a time of negotiations to keep your full conference abreast, because as we do, you all leak it, and you can’t negotiate once you leak. So something blows something else up.”

Aaron Cutler, a partner at Hogan Lovells and former aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), said McCarthy will have to give the unhappy members of his conference some time and ensure the priorities they care about are getting attention, such as oversight agendas.

“Allowing members to kind of bring their priorities to the floor in the coming months before the August recess, end of the year — I think that’ll be where the speaker can continue to build relationships with all sorts of members in the Republican conference,” Cutler said.

McCarthy signaled he will turn more attention to the kind of oversight priorities that animate his critics now that the debt limit has been addressed, such as Republicans threatening to hold FBI Director Christopher Wray in contempt of Congress over a document subpoena dispute.

The Speaker also emphasized the political realities of governing in a divided Washington, which requires compromises that virtually ensure opposition from the ideological fringes of both parties.

“We were never going to get everybody,” he said. 

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