He got President Biden to negotiate. And then he got a deal. Now, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is in the final phase of his debt ceiling saga: whipping up enough support for the bill in the House GOP conference to secure his political future.
Basic political wisdom dictates that McCarthy needs a majority of House Republicans to support the bill in order to maintain his political power, and McCarthy has repeatedly said that he will meet that standard. He knows he’ll need Democratic help to pass the measure, but the more GOP members that vote with him, the better for the Speaker.
“If a majority of Republicans are against a piece of legislation and you use Democrats to pass it, that would immediately be a black letter violation of the deal we had with McCarthy to allow his ascent to the Speakership, and it would likely trigger an immediate motion to vacate,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said on Newsmax on Tuesday, referring to a move to oust McCarthy from the Speakership.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks to reporters at the Capitol following a meeting at the White House with Congressional leaders and Vice President Harris to discuss the debit ceiling on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (Greg Nash)
As of Tuesday evening, more than two dozen members of the slim, four-seat GOP majority in the House said they will vote against the bill, meaning McCarthy will need to rely on Democratic members supporting the Biden-blessed deal to pass the bill.
If more Democrats than Republicans vote for the bill, McCarthy could be in hot water.
“I am predicting it’ll have more Democrat votes than Republican votes,” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) said Tuesday. “Democrats are truly being told to suppress their enthusiasm, to not talk about it publicly.”
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that Republicans committed to deliver at least two-thirds of their conference — around 150 GOP members — in favor of the bill. He said Democrats would provide the vote needed to pass the bill, but vowed to hold McCarthy to that number.
McCarthy did not answer a question Tuesday on whether he could deliver 150 GOP votes for the bill, but said that he expects the bill to pass.
More coverage of the debt ceiling from The Hill:
- McConnell to face off with conservative opponents on debt ceiling bill
- Senate Democrats fret over debt ceiling deal, but signal grudging support
- State officials ask Yellen for clarity on what will happen if debt bill doesn’t pass by June 5
Some members are already starting to threaten McCarthy’s grasp on the Speaker’s gavel, officially ending the honeymoon that lasted for months after the four-day, 15-ballot saga to elect McCarthy as Speaker in January.
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) became the first GOP member to publicly call for ousting McCarthy by making a motion to vacate the chair over the debt deal Tuesday. While it takes just one member to force a vote on ousting the Speaker — a threshold McCarthy agreed to lower from five during his drawn-out Speaker election in January — Bishop did not explicitly commit to making that motion.
And Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) confirmed an NBC News report that in a House Freedom Caucus call Monday night, he asked whether they were considering calling a motion to vacate due to spending levels in the debt bill being higher than fiscal 2022 levels.
“[Rep.] Scott Perry [R-Pa.], the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, told me it’s premature,” Buck said on MSNBC on Tuesday.
Republican leaders called members back to Washington for votes and a conference meeting Tuesday evening, allowing leadership to whip support for the bill in person.
“We’re kicking way beyond our weight. We barely control half of a third of the government,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mark Green (R-Tenn.) said in a House GOP press call Monday evening.
In a two-and-half hour House GOP conference meeting stretching into Tuesday night, opponents of the bill aired grievances, while leaders and their allies argued in favor of the bill. Members left the meeting saying their minds had not been changed.
But the meeting also aimed to lessen any retaliation against leadership by those angry with the bill.
“It’s a foregone conclusion it’s gonna pass. They’re gonna have Democrat support to pass it,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.). “And so, we just talked about the after-effects. I don’t think McCarthy wants another uprising like this.”
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who was a swing vote on a procedural hurdle to advance the bill in the House Rules Committee, announced his support for the bill in the meeting. It is the first legislation that he can vote for that has a chance to make it into law that cuts spending, he said.
“The engineer and the problem-solver in me wanted to vote for the bill, and the politician did not,” Massie said. “I’m going against my political instincts in voting for it.”
The deal that McCarthy struck with Biden claws back some spending, increases work requirements on public assistance programs and does not include tax increases — meeting all of the Speaker’s stated red lines for a deal.
But it has significantly fewer cuts and policy reforms less than the “Limit, Save, Grow” legislation the House GOP passed in April. Some members accuse GOP leadership of overstating how much money the bill saves, pointing out loopholes that can undermine or nullify some of the GOP’s stated wins.
Members of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus are pushing GOP members to vote against the bill — warning that their conservative credentials are on the line.
“If every Republican voted the way that they campaigned, they would vote against tomorrow’s bad deal,” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said in a press conference Tuesday.
Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, will oppose the bill and include a “key vote” against it on its scorecard — a metric of conservatism that holds weight with many Republican members of Congress, campaign donors and voters. The conservative advocacy organization FreedomWorks also called a “key vote” against the bill Tuesday.
Some members are showing that they can be swayed. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) told reporters that while the bill is a “shit sandwich,” she is interested in what “sides” leaders can provide to make the metaphorical meal more appetizing — such as a balanced budget amendment or rescinding more IRS funding. “Dessert,” Greene said, would be impeaching Biden or Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
McCarthy brushed off conservative criticism of the bill Tuesday.
“I’m not sure what in the bill people are concerned about. It is the largest savings of $2.1 trillion we’ve ever had,” McCarthy told reporters, citing what Republicans say are preliminary Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates of how much the deal could reduce the deficit.
Critics of that figure say that appropriations targets past 2025 are not enforceable.
The CBO on Tuesday evening estimated the deficit reduction at $1.5 trillion over 10 years.
McCarthy also told CNN that he is not worried about his Speakership, saying that he is “still standing” and that reporters are “underestimating” him.
Some of the opposition to the bill is coming outside of the House Freedom Caucus.
First-term Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-Texas) — who flew back from visiting his wife and newborn in the hospital in order to vote for McCarthy for Speaker in January — said Tuesday that he will vote no on the bill. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), a senior member on the House Ways and Means Committee, also tweeted he plans to oppose the bill.
To some Republicans, the opposition to the deal is puzzling.
“We don’t control all those levers of power. So we can’t throw a Hail Mary pass on every play, which is what some that are our conference may want to do,” Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.) said Monday, saying the bill “is like a 60-yard pass, maybe completed pass.”
Mike Lillis and Mychael Schnell contributed.