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McCarthy takes speaker perch as GOP stares down new mission: governance

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) walks to open the House floor for the first time as speaker. After McCarthy and his allies negotiated a deal late last week that put the gavel in his hands, he will now try to wrangle the disparate factions in his party to deliver on campaign promises.

WASHINGTON – Republicans successfully passed their first priority as the new majority Monday, establishing the rules that will govern how the House functions over the next two years, just days after internal conflict brought the chamber to a standstill in a once-in-a-century clash.

While the pathway to passage was significantly less dramatic than the steps taken to elect Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker last week, it was not without pushback from lawmakers who feared that agreements to get to this point may have weakened their majority.

McCarthy and his allies successfully negotiated a deal late last week that put the gavel in his hands. But the cordiality between more moderate Republicans and the hard-right flank of the party was tested for the first time Monday evening, as several Republicans objected to the rules package over concerns that McCarthy conceded too much power to conservative holdouts in an effort to win the speakership.

The dragged-out fight to elect McCarthy brought a daunting realization to many Republicans in the conference: Any negotiation over policy and the future of the party is going to be equally as contentious.

Republicans knew that a razor-thin majority could jeopardize finding consensus to enact the fulsome policy agenda they proposed before the midterms. But last week’s drama painted a more realistic picture to House Republicans about how arduous it will be to find consensus moving forward.

“Democracy and governing can be messy,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), who presided over the session Monday. “We’ve got some huge challenges ahead on every front. So trying to find consensus, either as a party or in a bipartisan way, will be the biggest test of leadership that we’ve seen in a long time.”

While Republicans are publicly arguing that their at-times vicious open debate was good for democracy, privately they acknowledge that the ongoing member-on-member clashes could threaten key legislation Congress must pass, like bills that fund the government and raise the nation’s debt limit. How Republicans handle the internal dynamics and the affect on legislation could set the stage for a brutal 2024 election, as Democrats will almost certainly look to highlight the divisions to voters.

Of top concern to several Republicans is the “motion to vacate” provision in the rules package, which details a process that allows House members to recall the speaker. The conservative wing wanted to change the votes required to bring up that motion. McCarthy allies said last month they wouldn’t entertain that option, in an effort to protect him from members who may try to oust him. But to win over support, McCarthy conceded on the issue, first changing the rule to allow five members to make the motion, then dropping that threshold to one last week.

As issue, however, is that the rule allows anyone, including Democrats, to call for a motion to expel the speaker. The rule has been in place for more than a century, but its impact was tested by then-Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and then-speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who had an agreement that they would not interfere in each other’s leadership battles, including on the motion to vacate, to protect the institution, according to three people familiar with the decision who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

No such agreement is expected between McCarthy and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).

“When you open up a Pandora’s Box, sometimes you don’t realize what tomorrow or next week or next month brings in,” said Rep. Tony Gonzales (Texas), who was the only Republican to vote against the rule package. “Today’s vote wasn’t just about the whole package, it’s, you know, what is the next obstacle look like?”

The new rules also mandate an up-or-down vote on lifting the debt limit, so the speaker can’t tuck the debt limit vote into a broader bill. The rules also place restrictions on lifting government spending and raising taxes, and ensure bills cover one issue instead of massive, all-encompassing legislation.

“Anything that takes more power out of leadership and gives more ability to rank-and-file members is going to be really good for our conference,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said.

Under the rules, Republicans will also create a new select subcommittee under the Judiciary Committee that will investigate what they are describing as the weaponization of the federal government. The mandate will be broad and is expected to encompass the Justice Department’s investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack and the indictment of more than 900 people who stormed the Capitol that day. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who is both a McCarthy ally and a member of the Freedom Caucus, will chair the committee and has vowed aggressive oversight of the Biden administration.

The rules package would also get rid of proxy voting, a pandemic-era exception that allows members to vote remotely and Republicans have long railed against.

The House passed the rules package in a 220-213 vote largely along party lines, with Gonzales voting against it and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) missing the vote. Crenshaw lost his bid to become Homeland Security Committee chairman to Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) earlier in the day in a move seen by some lawmakers and aides as appeasing requests by the staunchly conservative Freedom Caucus.

In another key personnel decision, McCarthy chose Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) as his designee on the steering committee, which decides who runs the other House committees. Donalds, a member of the Freedom Caucus, was nominated by some members on the right to be speaker, and the move was a central demand from the members on the right.

While the rules package largely kept Republicans on the same page, much more consternation exists over the closed-door “gentleman’s agreement” that helped broker the deal for 15 holdouts to support McCarthy for the speakership. Those details were not made public and won’t included in the congressional record but will be watched closely by members who signed onto the plan – McCarthy, his closest allies, some moderates and the holdouts.

Those concessions place limits on new spending, including defense spending, which has frustrated some defense hawks. Leadership also agreed to prioritize an aggressive border security bill that would build a wall along the southern border for a vote, according to multiple aides and members of Congress familiar with the agreement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private conversations. The House would also vote on legislation to establish term limits for members to serve six terms or 12 years, a proposal that would require a Constitutional amendment.

Republicans who were eager to govern were angry over how the terms of the hashed-out agreements could set a precedent, making the House majority ineffective. Some republicans acknowledge that the backroom dealing can’t become the status quo, worrying that leadership folding to the hard-right leaves a majority of them out of consideration.

“We spent four days holding up the speaker vote to get one change on the motion to vacate as part of the rules, and now there are rumors of backroom deals cut with a handful of members. If it’s not okay for the far left to cut deals in secret, then why is it okay for a few on the far right to cut deals in secret?” said Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who threatened against voting for the rules package but ended up supporting it.

Several Republicans worried that the rules and the separate agreement would lead to cuts to defense spending, which is what the hard right demanded – along with domestic spending cuts – as part of their focus to curb the national debt.

Gonzales said he would be voting against the rules package for that reason and concerns over border security legislation – which are supported by his fellow Republican Texans – that he has previously denounced as dead on arrival since it does not approach immigration reform holistically.

“If this insurgency caucus decides to put anti-immigrant legislation on the floor and mascaraed it as border security policy, that’s not going to fly, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that type of legislation fails on the floor,” Gonzales said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

Moderate Republicans involved in the negotiations last week pushed that there should not be objection to the rules package since it clearly serves as conservative principles that will guide them through the majority.

“This rules package is actually about Republican unity,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), who was part of the negotiations last week, said before its passage. “Every single one of these big conservative wins, Mr. Speaker – and more like them – were supported by Republican conference long before the excitement of last week.”

Republicans were largely united in their defense for the rules package, arguing against Democrats who were trying to label the GOP as disheveled and being ruled by a minority within their conference. From moderates like Johnson to Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who was one of the holdouts last week, many in the GOP pushed for adoption because it promises the return of power to committees and members the conference was seeing.

“I’m delighted to be talking about a rules package crafted by a Republican majority and that reflects, what I think, is a fundamental transformation of this House to ensure that people can be represented by their representative,” Roy said. “That’s the point.”

More than half of the GOP conference has never served in the majority and are viewing the House through Pelosi’s tightly controlled floor that didn’t allow rank-and-file members to offer changes to a bill once it reached the floor.

“Our conference won’t survive a 1,200-page book coming off a speaker’s copier at midnight and going to the floor at noon,” Armstrong said. “No speaker would survive that with our Republican conference.”