House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol on July 11, 2023. | Francis Chung/POLITICO
Speaker Kevin McCarthy is working furiously to prevent another House floor takeover by his hardest-right conservatives as the GOP prepares to tackle some of the year’s biggest bills.
With the House back for a final stretch before its August recess, McCarthy on Tuesday afternoon summoned a group of leaders from multiple corners of his conference to shape a strategy for staving off further right-wing revolts — which his team can’t afford this summer. Underscoring the urgency of their task, the group of GOP lawmakers met in the shadow of what could become a new right-flank rebellion over the rule for debating a must-pass Pentagon policy bill.
“The speaker has called these meetings so we can get things hopefully worked out before it blows up on the floor, so there’s no surprises,” said Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett, one of the 11 Republicans who held up the floor last month during an ongoing rift with leadership.
But Burchett said he remained “ticked off” about a few other things, namely party leaders’ recent treatment of his proposed amendments to that Pentagon policy bill.
And he wasn’t the only hard-right Republican who left less than satisfied after Tuesday’s meeting — which party leaders described to members as the first of several procedure-focused discussions.
“They’ve got the problem of figuring out how to put Humpty Dumpty back together. I’m perfectly willing to cooperate. But we’ve demonstrated we can get to yes, that’s not the problem,” said Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), another of the 11 conservatives who defied leadership on the party’s own agenda in June.
“I think sitting around in rooms, frankly, and for people to repeat things … [is] probably not gonna get the job done,” Bishop added. “I think they got to figure out another path.”
Another conservative said he’s not ruling out taking a drastic step to voice his discontent to leadership: voting against debate on the defense policy bill, essentially blocking it from coming to the floor.
“It’s 1,500 amendments for something as important as the national defense authorization. We need to make sure they’re the right amendments. … It takes a long time,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who holds unique power on the House Rules panel.
Asked if he’s willing to oppose the procedural move required to debate the bill, Roy replied: “It’s not about being willing to sink the rule. It’s about making sure the rules are protecting members. … If we’ve got sufficient amendments made in order, rights are being protected, then we’ll be able to proceed.”
According to two attendees at Tuesday’s meeting, McCarthy’s general message was more philosophical about the GOP’s need for unity, versus prescribing a specific course of action for upcoming bills. The California Republican did signal his preference on one thing: Coming to agreement on funding the government before the current shutdown deadline of Sept. 30.
Republican Study Chair Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) summed up the message from leadership as: “Our goal is not to do a CR” — referring to a continuing resolution, the sort of stopgap spending bill that’s currently seen as inevitable across Capitol Hill.
But Republicans also acknowledged that they are quickly running out of time to avoid such an outcome — they would need to thread a veritable bucket of needles on spending decisions in just six weeks of session. The party is also trying to navigate growing demands from the right flank, many of whom attended Tuesday night’s confab.
In what could prove a bad omen, even McCarthy himself seemed to acknowledge Tuesday that his party’s goal of passing the Pentagon policy measure this week could slip.
“I never put it into this week,” he told reporters. “I was always very confident we’d get it done.”
The speaker and his leadership team have spent weeks working with GOP members and their Democratic counterparts to find a compromise bill that can clear the House with conservative votes — but also preserve the bipartisan support that the legislation has almost always enjoyed on the floor.
It’s not clear whether that compromise can materialize by Friday.
“I do worry about us. I worry about what we’re gonna do. Because we’re so fractured in so many different directions,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), who attended the meeting.
“The speaker has to be somewhat frustrated,” Womack added. “I think, eventually, the speaker’s going to stand up. He’s gonna have to look us in our baby blues and say, ‘You need to vote for these bills.’ Because the failure to vote for these bills is not what we were given the majority for.”
Womack, like many other senior Republicans, worries most about what will happen on government funding.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus have already warned that they are prepared to vote against federal spending bills unless a range of demands are met, including not holding any floor votes until all 12 individual spending measures have cleared the Appropriations Committee.
But many Republicans privately believe that’s impossible absent a tectonic shift within the conference. Leadership had hoped to clear at least a handful of the less-contentious spending bills before departing for August, but now those plans are in flux.
In the meantime, the spending panel’s GOP leaders have undertaken a major internal campaign to convince conservatives to back down. They warn that the demand only delays the whole process — allowing more months of a Democrat-negotiated spending regimen — and are trying to negotiate a potential work-around.
Conservatives are also railing against a major decision that McCarthy made, to count clawbacks of previous spending toward the party’s promise of returning to fiscal year 2022 spending levels. It’s an issue that remains unresolved as of Tuesday night and could lead to the exact sort of conservative rebellion on spending bills that McCarthy’s working to avoid.
“We will have clarity on that,” Freedom Caucus member Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said, before acknowledging the conference’s larger conundrum: “It might not be what everyone wants.”
Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.