After 100 days in control, House Republicans have not reached consensus on how they will handle a vote on raising the debt ceiling — a critical piece of legislation that, if not passed, has global economic implications. They have not agreed on what their budget should, or should not, include, with various factions of the conference preparing their own versions. They are once again uncertain about when to vote on a major midterm promise — border security legislation — after not being able to secure support for its passage. And behind all of these public debates, skepticism and distrust is growing among GOP leaders.
The growing rancor and the lack of progress on major legislation have set the stage for months of tumult ahead for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who has struggled to shepherd his narrowly divided conference as both moderate and extreme GOP members seek to leverage their power in the party’s four-vote majority. The coming battles could have profound effects on the U.S. economy as well as on the 2024 election, as House Republicans pursue numerous right-wing policies that could influence races for Congress and the White House.
McCarthy narrowly won approval to take the gavel after a bruising days-long fight in January and has seen other internal issues erupt into the public eye over committee assignments, stalled votes and increasing mistrust among leaders.
“Everybody is going to be looking at each other much more suspiciously now,” said a Republican aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal party dynamics. “It’s going to be much harder to do things.”
House Republicans have had some success, pushing through several bills that put Democrats on the record and were signed into law by President Biden, including those to declassify information pertaining to covid-19, end the covid national emergency and block a local D.C. crime bill from going into effect.
But Republicans’ first 100 days in the majority have been comparatively less productive than some previous Congresses. They have so far passed only a few of their top priorities, including an energy bill and voting to rescind money for IRS staffing — neither of which will be voted on in a Democratic-controlled Senate. Republicans point to the protracted speaker’s fight and slow organizing of the Congress to explain the sluggish start on the legislative front.
For his part, McCarthy has received accolades across the conference for his management style, including from the staunchly conservative group that almost thwarted his chance to take the speaker’s gavel. And he has spent time working to educate new members about fiscal issues and secure buy-in across the conference for the impending battles ahead. But the unity seemed fragile after a New York Times story last week reported McCarthy’s lack of confidence in some of his deputies. That renewed anxiety within his caucus about tackling the upcoming agenda amid such divisions.
In a news conference Monday, McCarthy made no mention of the internal conflicts and instead touted House Republicans’ achievements in the first 100 days, saying they will “move to make the fiscal house of America more secure by passing a debt ceiling.”
McCarthy has now taken a key aspect of the budget process into his own hands. He is devising a bill that would lift the debt limit for one year and propose up to $2 trillion in budget cuts over a decade. While the bill is based on the areas that have the most consensus within the conference, it’s still unclear if it — or any proposal — can gain the support of all 218 Republicans.
Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a conservative who has been critical of McCarthy in the past, said that “the speaker has done a really good job of holding the conference together.”
“But again, as you know, some of the heavier lift is still to come.”
How Republicans got here
It was an unusual sight inside the Capitol last month. Huddled over pizza in a ceremonial office, six House Republicans from disparate ideological factions boasted to reporters that they were setting aside their policy disagreements as they head into an expected collision with the White House over fiscal issues.
It was an attempt to portray a united front after a difficult launch for the new GOP majority that has already confronted some significant challenges. But Republicans admit the path ahead is treacherous.
The most consequential issue is the debt ceiling, which could upend global economic stability if not addressed as soon as June 5, the date the Treasury Department has said the United States will reach its debt limit. Biden has demanded Congress lift the limit with no strings attached, while House Republicans are demanding major spending cuts in exchange.
Additionally, some in the conference are signaling a willingness to shut down the government if the House and the Senate can’t approve 12 individual funding bills — a feat both chambers haven’t achieved in more than 25 years.
Knowing his slim majority could derail negotiations on key policy issues at any moment, McCarthy prioritized bridging internal divides in the early days of the majority. To do that, he and his deputies have provided more avenues for lawmakers to express their opinions. More members are included at the leadership table. They’ve changed House rules to allow lawmakers a final opportunity to amend bills on the floor.
Underscoring the challenges of a new majority, however, leaders are routinely holding educational roundtables so members — some of whom have never held any elected office before and more than half of whom have never been in the House majority — understand that their redline demands have a higher likelihood of derailing good-faith negotiations than becoming law.
In February, hours before McCarthy met with Biden to discuss the debt ceiling and the GOP’s desire to rein in spending, the speaker convened a conference-wide debt-limit “boot camp” to educate members about the consequences of a default and explain the difference between the budget and the debt limit. (A budget is an accounting of proposed spending, a precursor to writing spending bills, and not doing a budget has no practical impact. But the debt limit is the cap on expenditures to pay the country’s bills. Not lifting the debt limit would lead to default and have global economic implications.)
According to several lawmakers and aides who were granted anonymity to speak about private conversations, some Republicans toyed with the idea of blocking an increase in the debt ceiling to get what they wanted to balance a budget — equating defaulting on the national debt as a similar tactic to shutting down the government, which is something most Republicans, including McCarthy, don’t want.
“We need the whole conference educated on the same level,” McCarthy told lawmakers then, according to people familiar with his remarks. “The more knowledge you have, the better off we’ll all be on what we can achieve and what we can get in the end.”
Several lawmakers involved in fiscal negotiations said they are confident their colleagues now understand the risk of default and no longer see the need to insist that a budget be readied or passed before raising the debt ceiling. Members of the Freedom Caucus, for example, now see multiple opportunities to propose federal spending cuts, including during the government funding deadline in the fall and next year if Congress and the White House agree to a Republican proposal of raising the debt ceiling only for one year.
It’s also increasingly likely that Republicans won’t unveil a budget before addressing the debt ceiling after leaders realized the challenges of compiling a document that would gain the support of the entire conference, according to multiple lawmakers.
Instead, the GOP leadership has been training members to direct their ire not at McCarthy or one another but at Biden for not engaging in debt limit negotiations.
Roughly two dozen lawmakers who spoke to The Washington Post commended McCarthy’s inclusionary style, including praise from those who never voted in support of him for speaker. During a news conference on their budgetary demands last month, Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.), and Bob Good (Va.), all of whom voted “present” against McCarthy in January, expressed their gratitude to him for keeping his promise to reopen the appropriation process and include the House Freedom Caucus’s top line fiscal priorities in his recent letter to Biden.
“I think that indicates that we have a fairly united front, and I’m hoping and praying that it continues to be united as we go forward,” said Biggs, a former chairman of the Freedom Caucus who challenged McCarthy’s speakership bid.
McCarthy now meets with the chairs of the five ideological caucuses once a week when they’re in session and has deployed Rep. Garret Graves (La.) to oversee the larger Elected Leadership Committee, which gives more members an opportunity to represent their disparate factions’ opinions and argue over policy.
In an effort to keep the peace, McCarthy has often chosen to address concerns within the conference behind closed doors. That has brought grumblings at times, including when McCarthy and other leaders did not rebuke Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) for her outlandish statements and behavior or call for the resignation of Rep. George Santos (N.Y.) after his lies were revealed.
“There may be little spikes of irritation based on the news of the day because, you know, we’re not all going to agree on everything,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), who chairs the governing-focused Main Street Caucus, said after McCarthy’s decision to give Fox News’s Tucker Carlson access to security footage from the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection — a decision that bothered lawmakers within Johnson’s group.
Tasked with delivering at least 218 Republican votes on GOP priorities, Majority Whip Tom Emmer (Minn.) has taken up an open-door policy, asking his colleagues what their red lines are, what they can live with, and what they may need to cast a tough vote — especially when trying to break logjams with members who “despise each other.”
“You may not want this person to get anything, and you are so sick and tired of this person taking everything,” Emmer said in an interview. “Our job is to make sure that at the end of the day, both of them walk away from the table and go, ‘Yep, I did the job I had to do for the people at home.’”
Those meetings, which also involve Deputy Whip Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), have proved critical in shaping the debt ceiling framework McCarthy publicly unveiled Monday.
But McCarthy’s model for conference stability has not always worked.
Leaders at several times earlier this year miscalculated, believing they had widespread agreement on certain measures before running into the reality of their razor-thin majority. McCarthy’s effort to kick Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) off the Foreign Affairs Committee, for example, received blowback from some members. To secure their vote to remove Omar, he had to offer those opposed the opportunity to brainstorm establishing a higher threshold for such actions.
Leaders also readied a resolution to condemn the Biden administration for not shooting down a Chinese spy balloon in U.S. airspace, but had to change it to broadly condemn the Chinese Communist Party because some Republicans argued they would be voting on something without knowing all of the facts.
Most notably, leaders had expected to bring a border security proposal by Rep. Chip Roy (Tex.) straight to the floor as one of their first action items of the Congress, a key election tenet. But when a campaign promise was put to paper, there wasn’t enough Republican support for it. The bill was supposed to advance in the more ideologically conservative Judiciary Committee in March, but consensus among key players had yet to be reached. While Republicans are likely to pass their proposals through committee this month, a final vote remains unclear because opposition in the wider conference remains.
“If there’s one member on your committee that has a problem, imagine that there’s probably a dozen members on the House floor that have a similar problem, which means the bill doesn’t pass,” said House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), who has moderated conversations among lawmakers on border security. “We can’t deal with a problem on the floor. That’s not the best place to deal with it.”
Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was known for scheduling bills for a vote without giving her caucus much of a heads up, often leading to stalled hours-long votes because a handful of Democrats would balk, threatening their four-vote majority margin.
GOP leaders cannot afford to let such battles play out on the floor. The trials of McCarthy’s speakership election exemplified — and reminded — Republicans that their staunchly conservative colleagues are more willing to buck leadership than Democrats.
Some Republicans have privately expressed doubts about how long the good faith can last. Many speculate the debate on how to fund the government will not just test their relationships, but also test whether any lawmaker pulls the trigger to oust McCarthy as speaker if they don’t get their way.
“I have said this all along,” said Rep. David Joyce (Ohio), who chairs the more pragmatic Republican Governance Group. “It boils down to trust. Eventually, we’re going to have to hold hands and jump off the cliff together and trust each other that we’re going to get to the bottom.”
Where Republicans are headed
Hours before McCarthy publicly unveiled Republicans’ debt ceiling negotiation framework Monday, leaders involved reassured colleagues that all factions will continue to play a role in shaping it, according to multiple lawmakers who participated in a conference call led by GOP leaders Sunday. But the current cohesion, and leadership’s ability to manage demands, will be tested on several fronts in the coming weeks and months.
For instance, McCarthy’s debt plan includes work requirements for safety-net programs, including Medicaid, which will undoubtedly be controversial. Some of the more moderate members don’t want the programs altered.
And according to people familiar with the discussions, leadership’s initial directive to each ideological faction was to avoid putting out their own position statement related to the debt ceiling without first informing one another about it. The House Freedom Caucus bucked that ask, shocking some members, when it released what demands it has in exchange for its votes in raising the debt ceiling. The White House has highlighted those demands, which Biden referenced in his response to McCarthy, as unreasonable.
Now the Republican Study Committee, the Main Street Caucus, the Republican Governance Group and possibly even the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus will release their own plans. Meanwhile, Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.), who was described in the New York Times article as lacking McCarthy’s confidence, presented a budget at the Republican retreat last month, but it’s unclear if it will ever be released.
“This is a failure of the five family meetings,” said one person familiar with internal dynamics of House Republicans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal frustrations. “We wanted to avoid a fractured caucus,” but it “didn’t work out as intended.”
Asked whether each faction releasing its own proposals disrupts leadership’s goal of uniting the conference, Emmer said that “we don’t control anybody” and that leaders’ ask to members has always been “that they’d be upfront and direct” with them about what they could support.
After the spring recess, Republicans had hoped to piece together a border security package, which many GOP lawmakers said is a critical campaign pledge the conference must address before fiscal debates consume the rest of the year.
A small group of lawmakers, including Scalise and the chairs of each committee, have been working to hash out their differences. The two members at the forefront of the public debate are Texas Republicans Roy and Tony Gonzales, who represents the largest stretch of the Texas-U.S. border. They have sparred publicly over Roy’s bill, which critics say threatens migrants fleeing violence from claiming asylum at the border.
Gonzales says he’s fine being the outspoken critic of Roy’s bill, which he has called “anti-Christian,” because he is quietly backed by almost a dozen lawmakers who he says have “the most to lose” — vulnerable incumbents who helped gain the majority and representatives of large Hispanic communities. Roy argues the debate is less about specifics and more about showing the differences between Democrats and Republicans on an important issue for many voters, particularly the conservative base.
Gonzales acknowledged others may think he’s acting selfishly but said leadership can preserve their good standing by hashing out differences now rather than later.
“It can’t just be this, ‘Oh, we tried,’ and blame the Democrats [for inaction]. That doesn’t help me or my district one bit,” he said.
Back in the ceremonial Capitol office, Graves credited input from each caucus, including Emmer’s listening sessions, as laying the foundation of McCarthy’s letter to Biden detailing what their budget would include.
“Even people in our party that don’t agree on things sit down and talk with each other,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry (Pa.) said about Republicans’ call to reunite Biden and McCarthy before working unilaterally. “So that’s a minimum standard.”
Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.