WASHINGTON — Since his historic pursuit of the speaker’s gavel, which lasted 15 votes, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has maneuvered a razor-thin five seat Republican majority through difficult votes and managed to keep his conference united − publicly, at least.
On multiple must-pass pieces of legislation, McCarthy has managed to consolidate differences between hard-right conservatives and more moderate Republican lawmakers in the House GOP conference, pushing through essential priorities such as the annual defense policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act.
And at other times, McCarthy has proven he can force Democrats’ hand. Despite congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden’s insistence there should have been a debt ceiling increase earlier in the summer free from added policy priorities, McCarthy eventually struck a deal with Biden to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for coveted conservative spending cuts – even when Biden said he would never entertain such negotiations.
“Keep underestimating us, and we’ll keep proving to the American public that we’re never giving up on you,” McCarthy told reporters after the House passed the debt ceiling deal.
But McCarthy could be in for his biggest test yet when lawmakers return to Washington from the August recess next month. Congress has only three weeks to pass either 11 spending bills or a continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown. With a handful of ultra-conservative members eager for broad spending cuts across the board, it’s unclear if Congress will be able to keep the government funded.
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McCarthy has survived hostility from House conservatives
McCarthy has been acutely aware of how fragile his speakership is with a group of about 30 conservative lawmakers stepping in the way of nearly every legislative fight in the House. Those lawmakers, members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, have repeatedly threatened to derail must-pass key legislation if McCarthy did not meet their demands.
Infuriated over the debt ceiling deal McCarthy struck with Biden, House conservatives flexed their power in a thin majority and tanked a procedural vote in the chamber, in June stalling legislative action in a move that has not happened in over 20 years.
Regardless of the small faction of lawmakers who have been opposed to McCarthy every step of the way, he has still managed to push through key pieces of legislation, like the debt ceiling deal and the annual defense policy bill.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you that Republicans continue to keep our promises,” McCarthy quipped to reporters following passage of the defense bill in July.
McCarthy on five-seat majority: ‘We have to rethink how we do things’
But in order for Republicans to keep their promises, McCarthy has had to make concessions to members on his right flank, much to the dismay of more moderate GOP lawmakers.
Among some of the concessions McCarthy has had to make to the House Freedom Caucus was allowing votes on controversial amendments on the NDAA. A key conservative demand was for leadership to allow a last-minute floor vote on an amendment targeting a Pentagon abortion policy.
The amendment ultimately passed, but not without some misgivings from the more moderate members in the House GOP conference.
“I’m not happy about it,” Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., told The New York Times after the vote, “I wish we didn’t have to do this right now.”
House Democrats have also repeatedly criticized McCarthy for making concessions to his right flank. Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., and chair of the House Democratic caucus, warned of a looming government shutdown.
“Kevin McCarthy can’t control his conference, and they continue to let the most extreme members guide what they do,” Aguilar said in an interview on MSNBC in July.
McCarthy has dismissed the idea he has had to appease conservatives to maintain his speakership, saying “with a five-seat majority, we have to rethink how we do things,” at a press conference before lawmakers left for the August recess. McCarthy pointed to the House GOP’s border security bill passed in May after months of disagreements on the bill’s language and scope within the GOP conference.
McCarthy has limited time to avoid a government shutdown
McCarthy is facing his biggest hurdle yet when the House will have to pass 11 spending bills to avert a government shutdown, according to Matt Green, a professor of politics who studies congressional leadership at Catholic University
The test for McCarthy is a familiar one: placate the House conservatives who have been threatening his speakership since day one.
“Appropriations bills are gonna be a huge test for McCarthy,” Green said. It’s always a difficult process for leaders to push through spending bills, Green added, but McCarthy is in a harder position. Any bill that passes the Republican-controlled House is almost certainly dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House, which means there will have to be some sort of bipartisan compromise on spending.
But like with the debt ceiling deal earlier in the summer, hardline conservatives have shown no interest in dealing with Democrats.
“The question is whether or not McCarthy’s conservative flank will accept (compromise,) Green said. “It seems hard to imagine that there won’t be compromises required.”
House conservatives have already been staking out spending positions during the recess, which lawmakers typically spend outside of Washington in their districts. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, called for Congress to defund the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security. If not, Roy said he would not even support a continuing resolution to keep the government funded for a short period of time.
“I can tell you right now for all my colleagues, I will not vote for a continuing resolution or any funding for DHS or DOJ if we don’t get changes to both,” Roy said on “Fox News Sunday.”