As House Republicans prepared to approve their right-wing debt ceiling ransom note in late April, Speaker Kevin McCarthy had a problem. The GOP leader was desperate to pass the bill, but he didn’t have the votes: Some of his members saw the measure as too extreme, while others said they’d balk if it was made any less extreme.
Left with limited choices, McCarthy told both contingents what they wanted to hear: Pragmatic members were told to “ignore the substance“ of the plan and vote it to keep the process alive, knowing that the package would be overhauled during bipartisan talks, while hardliners were told he’d fight tooth and nail to defend the substance of the plan, demanding it remain intact.
In the short term, the tactic worked, and Republicans narrowly passed the bill. But it seemed inevitable that McCarthy’s method — delivering two contradictory messages to different factions of his own conference — would come back to bite him. And that’s exactly what happened this week.
NBC News reported late Wednesday that a “small bloc of conservative bomb-throwers is holding the floor of the House of Representatives hostage, forcing GOP leaders to cancel votes for the rest of the week.”
For the second straight day, the conservatives blocked several leadership-backed bills from moving forward Wednesday in protest of Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s handling of the debt deal he struck with President Joe Biden. The brazen revolt means this hard-right faction, made up mostly of House Freedom Caucus members, has ground legislating on the chamber floor to a halt, undermining the Republican majority and McCarthy’s power.
As we discussed Wednesday, the Freedom Caucus’ original plan was to retaliate against the House speaker by trying to force a vote to take his gavel away. That strategy was never going to work, and it quickly unraveled.
But the radicals’ Plan B is proving to be far more effective. On Tuesday, for example, Freedom Caucus members defeated a procedural vote on a key GOP priority — it was the first time any House majority conference had lost such a vote in more than two decades — explaining that this was their response to McCarthy’s handling of the bipartisan debt ceiling budget deal.
Maybe this would be a one-day tantrum, with some members blowing off some steam to make a point? Apparently not: The House speaker discovered Wednesday that the far-right hardliners had no interest in letting up, so McCarthy scrapped legislative work for the rest of the week.
The timing is hardly ideal: After the bipartisan budget deal passed last week, the House speaker received some of the best press of his career — I still find it hard to believe The Washington Times lauded his “virtuoso performance” — and McCarthy was finally ready to enjoy a rehabilitated reputation.
Maybe, the argument went, he wasn’t so weak after all. Maybe McCarthy knew what he was doing. Maybe he’d build on the success of the deal and generate some legislative momentum. Maybe he’d defy expectations and succeed as speaker.
Or maybe not. A week later, McCarthy, “blindsided“ by his own members’ tactics that he didn’t see coming, effectively lost control of the floor of his own chamber.
By way of a defense, the House speaker reminded reporters on Wednesday that he’s working with a tiny majority. That’s true. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi worked with a majority that was literally the exact same size, and she managed to govern effectively anyway — in part because she was a strong and effective leader, and in part because Democratic lawmakers are less prone to throwing legislative tantrums that hurt their own party and its agenda.
As for how this mess gets resolved, for now, that’s an open question. In January, McCarthy had to wheel and deal, making all kinds of secret side deals — many of which we still don’t know about — in order to secure his gavel. Don’t be surprised if he has to start doing the same thing now.