House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol July 11, 2023. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

The conservative fever that’s plagued Speaker Kevin McCarthy for weeks is showing no signs of breaking.

McCarthy and his leadership team returned to Washington this week planning to tee up the GOP’s biggest must-pass bills of the year, only to slam into a wall of resistance from familiar antagonists on the right. The speaker’s first problem is urgent: A small band of ultraconservatives, mainly in the House Freedom Caucus, has turned a routine Pentagon policy bill into a major headache for party leaders as they press for contentious votes on abortion, LGBTQ troops and affirmative action.

That drama isn’t over yet, with the right’s ever-growing slate of demands increasingly likely to delay final votes on the bill until next week, and its ultimate passage still a question mark. But conservatives are plotting other problems to come for McCarthy, who has precious little floor time left and an entire government to try to fund before current cash expires on Sept. 30.

Some right-flank Republicans are now holding up McCarthy’s plan to pass a heap of spending bills this month, even creating an abortion-related holdup on the usually less-controversial bill that funds the Department of Veterans Affairs and military personnel.

It’s yet another episode in the bleak reality show McCarthy’s living in this year: Everything is hard with just a five-seat majority. The conservative pushback isn’t the only internal mess that top Republicans have to clean up, either: Plans to take up a major GOP tax package by September are now stalled thanks to a separate group of members from New York and California who say they’ll refuse to advance the package without a major tax incentive for their districts.

“Four hundred and thirty-five people got elected to this body to do something. And it doesn’t feel right when 400 are sitting around waiting for 35 to decide what they want,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said after a late-night session of the House Rules panel, which was forced to punt its most contentious work on the defense bill because of the uncertainty on the party’s right flank.

Massie added that forging ahead on the less contentious topics, as the Rules Committee decided to do in the end, “allows all 435 people to be working, while the 35 decide what they want.”

So far, McCarthy and his team are taking a familiar tack, trying to unite their conference behind an ambitious July agenda with lots of sprawling, family-style discussions. The speaker huddled with his GOP members on Wednesday to try to encourage unity and argue against using the Pentagon policy package as a vehicle for the sort of marginally related debates conservatives once criticized.

McCarthy’s main message: “We need to keep amendments germane to defense. No more ‘Christmas Tree’ defense bills,” according to one House Republican, seemingly referring to conservatives’ long list of amendment demands.

Unfortunately for the speaker, newly empowered conservatives who are holding out on pledging their support for the full defense measure rejected that idea.

“Germaneness is like beauty: It is in the eyes of the beholder,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), a Freedom Caucus member who now has outsized influence thanks to his seat on the Rules Committee. “The great thing is, we’ve got all these 1,500 amendments. Seven years, we’ve been without any amendments. That’s what’s good about this.”

That sort of attitude from the right has rubbed other rank-and-file Republicans the wrong way.

One House Republican member of the Armed Services panel that crafted the defense bill, speaking candidly about his colleagues on condition of anonymity, said that “ironically, it’s some of the holdouts that argued against being able to hang ornaments all over must-pass bills during the” January speakership battle.

“But I guess that doesn’t apply when it’s their ornaments,” this Republican added pointedly.

While GOP leadership allies are underscoring the need to move quickly — with just 12 work days scheduled in September — some conservatives showed little concern for the time crunch. They didn’t blanch at the risk that some of the House’s work might spill into Congress’ traditional August recess.

“You’ve got to work in August. You just got to do the work,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a former Freedom Caucus chair, said when asked about the defense bill becoming a protracted ordeal. As for whether Republicans want to be dealing with votes on the House floor all of August, he added: “I don’t want to be, but if I have to be, that’s the job.”

Attempting to appease Republicans who are demanding votes on certain amendments, the House Rules Committee bought party leaders more time with a two-track approach: Pass the non-controversial amendments out of the panel on Tuesday night and then consider the more controversial ones on Wednesday.

In the meantime, Republicans found unlikely support from at least one past McCarthy critic: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said the existing version of the defense bill, “without a single amendment, gives conservatives every reason to be enthusiastic for it.”

Gaetz, whose district includes multiple massive military bases, spoke up in the GOP’s weekly meeting on Wednesday to encourage members to support the bill, as well as the vote to take it up — a procedural step that several of his own fellow conservatives were threatening to push back on.

“I think there’s some work to do. But there’s a lot of reasons to vote for this,” Gaetz said. Later, he added that anyone who votes against it would be “voting to continue critical race theory. They’re voting to continue radical gender ideology. I don’t support those things in our military.”

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