McCarthy House speaker drama signals more interparty fights for GOP, lawmakers say
Divisions among House Republicans confronted the past two GOP speakers and loom for whoever picks up the gavel next - be it Kevin McCarthy or someone else.
- Contentious fights loom over federal spending and debt that previously divided House Republicans.
- The narrow GOP majority means any division in a party-line vote could block legislation.
- Two past GOP speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, left office amid divisions in their conference.
WASHINGTON – The battle to become speaker of the House revealed divisions that threaten an unstable course for newly-elected House speaker Kevin McCarthy and could derail important legislation key to the functioning of government.
The challenge of a narrow majority like the one House Republicans hold is that a small faction of the conference – five lawmakers at this point – can prevent the election of a speaker and block approval of legislation along party-line votes. The historic 14-ballot speaker election that only resolved late Friday night proved that.
The narrow margin could make it difficult to approve contentious legislation in the House and then negotiate compromises with Senate Democrats. McCarthy will need to corral votes on thorny issues such as increasing the limit on how much the country can borrow and on must-pass spending bills to keep the government from shutting down.
"We have a narrow majority," said Mike Gallagher, a House Republican from Wisconsin. "We have to make it work."
McCarthy failed in the first 14 ballots for speaker in marathon voting this week because of opposition from up to 20 conservatives who questioned his trustworthiness and argued Republicans must do more to curb government spending.
He'll now have to thread a difficult legislative needle. McCarthy will need to win support from a conservative conference under the threat of removal from leadership. At the same time, getting a bill signed into law will mean negotiating compromises with a Democratic Senate and White House. Previous debates over spending and debt under similar scenarios led to partial government shutdowns in 2013 and 2018.
Freshman Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., told USA TODAY ahead of McCarthy's win that the GOP House leader is up to the challenge.
"What leader gives us the best opportunity to work through this chaos?" asked Johnson. "We can go with some Aaron Sorkin alternative from out of left field, but that person is not going to have the talent skills and abilities that Kevin does to be able to try to hold this coalition together."
Democrats, who were stuck waiting on the sidelines because the lack of speaker prevented lawmakers from being sworn in or from organizing committees and hiring staff, felt little compassion for Republicans' predicament.
“This is a problem of their own making,” said Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who was the first woman to be elected speaker and served two stints in that role. “This is called leadership. They should be able to work it out.”
Spending disputes fuel opposition to McCarthy, linger for next speaker
The $1.7 trillion spending package Congress approved in December to fund the government this fiscal year became a flashpoint in the debate over speaker as some rank-and-file Republicans railed against the agreement with the Senate while Democrats controlled both chambers. But negotiations to keep the government functioning are likely to become more complex with divided government.
"First of all, this is just the culmination of Republicans in Congress empowering fringe radicals and extremists for years," said Rep.Josh Harder, D-Calif. "If we see this kind of chaos on the first vote, imagine on something that's even more important like making sure we're fixing the debt ceiling, making sure we're actually passing a budget."
Lawmakers of both parties in both chambers compromised on massive spending packages in recent years because they couldn’t agree on smaller bills funding specific departments. McCarthy's opponents sought votes on 12 separate bills to fund the government.
"We must put the brakes on out-of-control spending and that is very much a part of this discussion," said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who opposed McCarthy before supporting him.
For example, Rep.Chip Roy, R-Texas, who also opposed McCarthy before supporting him, argued the $45 billion recently approved for Ukraine should have been debated more thoroughly.
"People ask me, 'What do you want?' I want the tools, or I want the leadership to stop the swamp from running over the average American every single day," Roy said.
Republican divisions confronted past two GOP speakers
The turbulence within the House Republican Conference is nothing new, with divisions hounding the past two GOP speakers out of office. McCarthy has already missed out on the speakership once because of opposition from conservatives including members of the Freedom Caucus.
Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced his resignation in September 2015 amid a fight to keep the government funded. But he had faced rebellion from conservative lawmakers who criticized him as too cozy with Democrats.
Boehner’s departure left McCarthy a favorite to succeed him, but he withdrew his candidacy because of opposition from serving as majority leader with Boehner.
Instead, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was elected speaker as a compromise candidate. But he led the chamber through partial government shutdowns in 2018 resolved with massive budget and spending deals opposed as too generous by the same critics who cast votes against McCarthy this week.
Ryan, who faced the same party divisions as Boehner, announced in April 2018 he wouldn’t seek reelection to spend more time with his children. Democrats regained control of the chamber in that fall’s election.
In nominating McCarthy for speaker, Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, acknowledged McCarthy's opponents don't trust him. But Davidson argued "a lot of colleagues" don't trust the 20 lawmakers who voted against McCarthy, either.
A key concession from McCarthy was agreeing that a single member could force a vote to remove the speaker, which would leave the speaker more vulnerable to removal than the voluntary departures of Boehner and Ryan.
Other agreements he negotiated include ending remote voting and committee work that Democrats allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic, a firm requirement to publish legislation at least 72 hours before a vote, separate votes on the 12 appropriations bills approved each year and a Judiciary Committee investigation into government collaboration with tech companies.
Raising debt limit divides Republicans
Increasing the country's ability to borrow money could become the first major hurdle facing McCarthy. Despite a broad consensus about the need to protect the country's creditworthiness, Republicans try to use votes on the debt limit as leverage to curb spending and oppose raising the debt limit even when they are in charge.
"I've never voted for a debt ceiling increase and I won't unless it's paired with meaningful reform," said Gallagher, who supported McCarthy.
In six of nine votes to raise or suspend the debt limit during the last decade, a majority of House Republicans opposed the measures. Half of those GOP votes to reject debt increases came under Republican speakers who needed Democratic support to approve the legislation.
Fights over spending and the debt limit led to partial government shutdowns under Republican speakers Boehner in 2013 and Ryan in 2018. The compromise in October 2013 – when then as now Republicans controlled the House and Democrats the Senate and White House – came the day before the Treasury Department's borrowing capacity was estimated to expire.
President Joe Biden signed legislation in December 2021 raising the country’s debt limit to $31.4 trillion. But mounting debt approaching that limit means Congress will have to vote to raise it again this year. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in November Congress should raise the limit enough to get past the 2024 presidential election.
GOP House expected to clash with Democratic Senate
McCarthy faces the prospect of repeated clashes with the Senate Democrats and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who supported McCarthy for speaker but also received 20 votes for speaker in one ballot, argued if no deals can be reached this year with Senate Democrats on spending and borrowing, Republicans should settle for holding funding steady for a year.
“Again, if they won’t take it up, and Joe Biden won’t sign it, we can stand firm,” Jordan said. “We can have that fight.”
Gallagher said the debt-limit debate could allow House Republicans to organize a united front in negotiations with the Senate around three to five common sense proposals for fiscal policy.
"Maybe we can use that as a way to stimulate that discussion now and attack it with a sense of urgency so at least we're going into a negotiation with the Senate with a united position," Gallagher said.
McCarthy opposed the spending package in December, despite GOP support in the Senate.
Lawmakers of both parties said bipartisan cooperation is possible on legislation such as the farm bill and on defense policy. But the head of the Democratic Caucus, Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, said it could only come if Republicans are willing collaborators.
"We look forward to working with our colleagues, but the key organizing principle in front of us is that we have to have a speaker," Aguilar said. "You can't have committees – ranking members and chairs – until you have that key step."
Contributing: Ella Lee