6 min read

An impasse in the House

House conservatives are flexing their muscles. Will McCarthy be forced to make more concessions to them?
An impasse in the House
Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of McCarthy’s lead detractors. (Gage Skidmore)
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Last week, I wrote that, despite predictions from January that Kevin McCarthy wouldn’t able to hold on long as speaker due to his fragile governing majority, he had kept House Republicans impressively united during his tenure and successfully defused several threats to his leadership.

This week, McCarthy’s speakership isn’t necessarily in jeopardy — just like in January, the vast majority of his conference remains behind him, and the rest don’t have a clear alternative — but his critics are flexing their muscles in the most noticeable way since the 15-ballot slugfest that gave McCarthy the gavel.

The latest dispute between McCarthy and his conservative detractors played out on the House floor Tuesday, over a pair of bills that would normally be the perfect red-meat legislation to excite them: the Gas Stove Protection and Freedom Act and the Save Our Stoves Act. Both measures would seek to prevent federal regulations targeting gas stoves, renewing a culture war fight that briefly raged earlier this year.

In the House, most bills cannot be put to a vote until a “rule” is passed calling for the measure to be considered by the chamber. These rule resolutions lay out the terms of debate on the House floor: how much time must pass before the bill receives a vote, how many amendments can be offered, etc. Generally, the House approves the rule for a bill, then debates the bill, then votes on the bill itself.

Historically, even if a measure has bipartisan support, only the majority party is responsible for passing the bill’s rule, which makes it something of a proxy test for majority party support for legislation (and, by extension, for their party’s leadership). Last week, due to conservative opposition to the package, House Republicans had to rely on Democratic votes for the debt ceiling bill rule, a rare (but not unheard-of) sign of weakness.

Then, something even rarer happened Tuesday: the rule for the gas stove bills failed, the first time a rule vote — normally a routine procedural step — has been unsuccessful since November 2002. 11 right-wing Republicans voted to block the rule, not because they oppose the underlying legislation, but to show their dissatisfaction with McCarthy over the debt ceiling deal. Unless they change their minds, the gas stove bills will not move forward; if they repeat the gambit with other pieces of legislation, no party-line measures will pass in the House until the impasse is solved.

What exactly are McCarthy’s critics upset about?

In the abstract, of course, they are not happy about the contents of McCarthy’s debt ceiling deal with Democrats or about the fact that he needed Democratic votes to pass the package. They believe McCarthy got “rolled,” that he should have held out for a debt ceiling bill more closely aligned with the one Republicans passed in April. (To be clear, more than 2/3 of House Republicans supported the debt ceiling compromise, so we are talking about a small minority, but an influential one considering how evenly divided the House is.)

Their specific points of criticism, however, remain unclear. “McCarthy lied, the rule died,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), one of the 11 detractors, tweeted on Tuesday, without outlining what McCarthy supposedly lied about.

Other Republicans have suggested that the debt ceiling deal violated promises McCarthy allegedly made to conservatives to win the speakership, including that no bill would be allowed to pass the House if it had more support from Democrats than Republicans. However, none of these promises were made public at the time, so it is impossible to judge whether these claims are supported by reality.

After McCarthy won the gavel, there were rumors of a secret three-page agreement that existed between the speaker and conservatives; it is possible these promises existed in that mysterious document. Both sides have denied the existence of a secret side-deal.

If this impasse continues, to mollify conservatives, McCarthy might have to publicly agree to some of the secret promises he reportedly made in January. For now, his detractors are mostly not talking about ousting McCarthy; they would much rather simply extract more concessions out of him. Why oust him when you could use him, the thinking goes.

Last week, I wrote that the debt ceiling deal was a continuation of how Washington has always worked. Well, the House Freedom Caucus does not like how Washington has always worked — with bipartisan consensus generally carrying the day on major issues — and is trying to use their leverage in a razor-thin majority to change it. Either they or McCarthy will emerge with the upper hand.

Whatever deal is worked out to break the logjam could have an impact on the major pieces of legislation the House has to pass later in the year. Government funding is set to run out in October; if McCarthy is forced by conservatives to agree to certain parameters for the eventual appropriations bills, it could make it more difficult for those bills to receive approval in the Democratic-led Senate.

If McCarthy then goes around the Freedom Caucus and strikes a spending deal with Democrats to avoid a shutdown, on top of his debt ceiling deal, his standing could be even further threatened.

Already, McCarthy has shown that he will have to cater more closely to his right flank after the debt ceiling agreement. When the debt compromise passed last week, Senate Republicans called for an emergency supplemental bill that would bust the spending caps outlined in the deal in order to provide more funding for Ukraine.

McCarthy, whose conference is much more averse to aiding Ukraine, quickly kiboshed it. “If they think they’re writing a supplemental because they want to go around an agreement we just made, it’s not going anywhere,” McCarthy said.

Even after scoring a major victory last week, the speaker’s room to maneuver remains small, as conservatives keep him constrained on a leash as tight as ever.

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Today’s political planner

President Biden and Vice President Harris will have lunch together. Neither have anything else on their public schedule.

The Senate will vote to confirm a new Under Secretary of Energy and to advance a U.S. district judge nominee.

The House is expected to try again on the rule for the gas stoves bill.

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