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Kevin McCarthy’s Freedom Caucus headache is just getting started

In the debt ceiling fight, House Freedom Caucus members thought they were running the show. Now they're learning otherwise. They're not taking it well.


As far as the far-right House Freedom Caucus was concerned, voters might’ve elected a Democratic president, a Democratic majority in the Senate, and a narrow Republican majority in the House, but it was the members of the right-wing faction in the lower chamber who were really in charge.

Last month, for example, as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy managed to pass a debt ceiling hostage note, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz boasted, “The leadership just picked up the House Freedom Caucus plan and helped us convert it into the legislative text.”

A week later, Republican Rep. Ralph Norman, another Freedom Caucus member, told Politico that McCarthy had privately assured the group that he would “personally oppose and fight against any debt ceiling agreement that doesn’t include all of the red-meat provisions in the House bill.”

Feeling emboldened, the Freedom Caucus started barking out demands about how the budget talks with Democrats should proceed, and new far-right ideas the faction expected GOP leaders to add to their existing ransom note.

But as the negotiations approach an apparent finish line, the House Republicans’ most radical faction is learning that it isn’t likely to get everything its members demanded — and for the Freedom Caucus, that’s not going to work. The conservative Washington Times reported:

Ultra-conservative lawmakers are up in arms over alleged details of a compromise that leaked out of the negotiations. Rep. Tim Burchett shared with fellow members of the House Freedom Caucus a document purporting to detail a list of spending compromises agreed to by negotiators. ... [Freedom Caucus members] want everything from the debt limit bill passed by the House last month plus several new concessions from the White House.

Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas said in a radio interview yesterday, “I am going to have to go have some blunt conversations with my colleagues and the leadership team. I don’t like the direction they are headed.”

Some of the implications of this are practical: If there’s a deal, it will need 218 votes. If members of the House Freedom Caucus balk — which seems inevitable, given that Democrats will obviously never agree to every far-right demand — it means a possible agreement will need quite a few votes from House Democrats to pass the narrowly divided chamber.

This, naturally, affects the shape of the closed-door negotiations: As far-right lawmakers walk away, participants are no doubt aware of the simple fact that Democrats in both chambers won’t approve a radically conservative bill.

But there are other considerations. A Politico report added, “The [House Freedom Caucus] was already unlikely to support a final bipartisan deal, but lingering anger with Kevin McCarthy could have lasting implications on his speakership.”

What kind of “lasting implications”? The answer might get a little complicated.

If this is simply a matter of lingering ill-will from members who come to believe that GOP leaders “caved,” the practical consequences might be limited. But let’s also not forget that McCarthy, while begging his own members for their support during his protracted fight for the speaker’s gavel, agreed to tweak the motion-to-vacate-the-chair rules, which at least in theory, would make it easier for angry House Republicans to try to oust McCarthy from his leadership position.

This isn’t a prediction, per se, and I’m not saying the House speaker will necessarily be ousted by a relatively moderate bipartisan deal, should one come together. But if the scope of the Freedom Caucus’ discontent reaches a fever pitch, a hypothetical deal clears thanks to significant Democratic support, don’t be surprised if we all start hearing the phrase "vacate the chair" a lot more frequently.