McCarthy’s Feud With Conservatives Over Debt Ceiling Risks Havoc on Spending Bills

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McCarthy’s Feud With Conservatives Over Debt Ceiling Risks Havoc on Spending Bills
Credit: © Reuters

(Bloomberg) -- For several weeks, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy couldn’t find a microphone he didn’t like. But, faced with a revolt on his right flank, the California Republican is suddenly silent. 

On Thursday afternoon, McCarthy gave the slip to reporters, who have been hanging on every turn in his fight with ultra-conservatives over his deal with President Joe Biden to avert a US debt default.  

An aide told the assembled reporters on the Capitol’s second floor that the speaker had left and wasn’t coming back. The crowd dispersed, only for McCarthy to emerge from a downstairs exit several minutes later. 

“I think we’re making a lot of progress,” McCarthy said as he brusquely walked away from two reporters who spotted him. 

The camera-friendly speaker’s attempt at a stealth getaway is the latest sign of trouble for McCarthy, who won the gavel in January after 15 rounds of voting. 

Eleven dissident Republicans on Tuesday used a procedural vote on a GOP-backed bill to blockade the House floor. By Wednesday night, McCarthy, unable to quell the rebellion, dismissed lawmakers for the week. 

The embarrassing episode raises questions about the fate of an expected Ukraine aid package later this year and spending bills to keep the government running past Sept. 30 — all of which will require compromise with Democrats that will further divide his party.

“House leadership couldn’t hold the line. Now we hold the floor,” tweeted one of the defiant rebels, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, on Wednesday.

Gaetz and other conservatives have said McCarthy abandoned many of their demands in the debt deal. Some have accused leadership of strong-arming Republicans into voting for the deal, and McCarthy of backtracking on promises he made to win the gavel in January.

Talks between McCarthy, who said he was “blindsided,” and the dissidents continued into Thursday with no resolution.

House Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry, who has been involved in the discussions, had little to say on Thursday.

“Different members have different concerns,” Perry said, as he left the speaker’s suite of offices. Perry wasn’t one of the 11 dissidents, but most are members of his caucus. 

Shutdown Fears

Tuesday marked the first time in more than two decades that a speaker couldn’t muster the votes to begin debate on a bill, according to C-SPAN.  

House Rules Chairman Tom Cole, a McCarthy ally, smiled Thursday when asked if the legislative blockade will emerge as some sort of House variation of the Senate filibuster.

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Cole said. “I don’t think this is going to stay long-term. This is the result of a very narrow caucus majority and people that are upset.” 

The Oklahoma Republican, a cigar-smoking bulwark of the old-school party establishment, predicted they would be back on track next week. McCarthy has said the same. 

Not everyone is so sure. The ultra-conservatives’ effective maneuver is already stoking bipartisan worries of a government shutdown this fall.

“You’ve got the tail wagging the dog,” complained Republican Steve Womack of Arkansas, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Womack said he has “serious concerns” about how “antics” could affect passage of spending bills later this year. “Funding the government is already going to be a pretty heavy lift,” he said.

House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said Thursday that Republicans, as the majority party, have the responsibility for managing the floor. 

The New York Democrat wouldn’t commit to Democrats bailing Republicans out on future procedural votes but he said he’s “hopeful it gets worked out before we return next week.” He also said he’s hopeful “MAGA Republicans” won’t force a government shutdown. 

That could prove difficult.

Even some of McCarthy’s allies, like Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, have demands for spending bills — such as cuts to domestic spending — that won’t fly with Democrats. McCarthy himself this week wobbled on funding Ukraine, which sharply divides the defense hawks and fiscal conservatives in his party.

So far the mutinous group hasn’t pursued the nuclear option: an outright motion to remove McCarthy as speaker. But it’s a threat that lingers over these discussions. Some of the rebels acknowledge that, for now, they do not have the support from GOP colleagues that would be required take his gavel. But even a failed no-confidence vote would be yet another embarrassment.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

© Bloomberg. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks May 31 following House passage of the debt deal.

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