The U.S. House and Senate on Capitol Hill in September, 2022. (Lynne Terry/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
WASHINGTON — Kevin McCarthy’s campaign to become speaker of the U.S. House will stretch into at least Friday night, as the California Republican inched ahead in his struggle to unite his divided party around his candidacy and an overhaul of rules under which the chamber will operate.
“We’ll come back tonight, and I believe at that time we’ll have the votes to finish this once and for all,” McCarthy told reporters Friday afternoon after the chamber voted 220-212 to adjourn until 10 p.m. Eastern.
Fifteen GOP holdouts moved to McCarthy’s side during two more rounds of voting, though that wasn’t enough for him to reach the threshold needed to become speaker. Republicans allied with McCarthy called for the House to adjourn until two absent House Republicans, who support McCarthy, are expected to be back in the Capitol.
McCarthy in negotiations has promised changes in the rules of the House to win over his conservative foes. But no GOP leaders, nor the Republicans who switched to backing McCarthy on Friday, have released documents or a clear outline of the changes, making their details or how they’d be enforced somewhat murky. The House would vote on the proposed rules changes after a speaker is elected.
Republican House leaders are reportedly planning to allow any member of the chamber to bring up a so-called motion to vacate, down from a previously planned five-member threshold, for a maneuver that essentially allows a no-confidence vote on the speaker.
In addition, conservatives won concessions about having representation on key committees and getting leaders to reduce spending to the fiscal 2022 level.
Any negotiations that touched on defense spending were of deep concern to defense hawks who represent districts with big Pentagon spending. Moving from the current fiscal 2023 level of about $1.7 trillion back to the roughly $1.5 trillion discretionary spending level of fiscal 2022 would represent significant reductions to nondefense accounts, since Republicans appear unlikely to cut defense spending.
The group also got an agreement to bring annual government funding bills to the floor under an open rule process, which allows any member of the House to offer amendments.
That practice hasn’t been employed in years. Leaders in both parties have allowed the Rules Committee to filter amendments going to the floor for debate and votes, eliminating the risk of “gotcha” amendments or repetitive amendments that essentially make the same change.
McCarthy said after the vote to adjourn that the ongoing disagreement over whether he should become speaker is actually good for the House GOP Conference, despite it being the longest speaker election since before the Civil War.
“This is the great part. Because it took this long, now we learned how to govern. So now we’ll be able to get the job done,” he said.
Switching to McCarthy
Dan Bishop of North Carolina, Josh Brecheen of Oklahoma, Michael Cloud of Texas, Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Byron Donalds of Florida, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, Mary Miller of Illinois, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Andy Ogles of Tennessee, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Chip Roy of Texas, Keith Self of Texas and Victoria Spartz of Indiana all moved to backing McCarthy on the 12th ballot on Friday.
Spartz previously had been voting present in an effort to get the holdouts in a room to work out a deal.
Maryland’s Andy Harris then flipped his vote to McCarthy on the 13th ballot.
“If the agreement we were able to finalize over the last few days is implemented, it will be the greatest change in how the House operates and becomes much more responsive to the American people in at least two generations,” Harris said in a written statement following his changed vote.
The remaining holdouts opposing McCarthy by late Friday afternoon were Andy Biggs of Arizona, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Eli Crane of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Bob Good of Virginia and Matt Rosendale of Montana.
Pennsylvania’s Perry said that the recent McCarthy supporters were working on getting the remaining holdouts to his side.
“If there’s something that we can address that would alleviate their concerns, that will ameliorate their concerns, we’re wanting desperately to deal with that immediately, so that we can get past this,” Perry said.
Perry and the House Freedom Caucus members who shifted their support to McCarthy said the deal under negotiation will hold the speaker accountable, curb spending and allow for more conservative representation on committees.
“It is critically important that the Rules Committee reflects the body and reflects the will of the people and that is a part of this framework,” Perry said.
Challenging outlook for House
The drawn-out speaker process highlights how challenging it will be for McCarthy, or whoever becomes speaker, to move legislation across the House floor with a four-person majority.
While many of the bills the House Republican Conference plans to move will be partisan and unlikely to get floor votes in the Democratic Senate, Congress has several must-pass bills that House GOP leaders will need to negotiate with Senate Democratic leadership and the Biden administration.
Those bills have been central to the ongoing dispute within the House GOP about how the party will handle its 222-person majority during this Congress.
The more conservative members of the party want to use the dozen annual government funding bills, which are supposed to become law by the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, to leverage GOP policy goals.
They’ve also touted the need to raise the nation’s debt limit sometime this year as another chance to hold up legislation in an effort to get some sort of agreement on how much the federal government spends annually.
The two deadlines and issues are separate, though some Republican lawmakers have switched them around or conflated them during interviews this week.
Congress has had several stalemates over government funding go past deadlines, leading to a funding lapse or a partial government shutdown. While the process has a significant impact on federal operations and the economy, it’s nowhere near as catastrophic as a default on the debt would be.
The United States has never defaulted on its debts and just getting close to the deadline in 2011 led to a downgrade of the nation’s credit.
Moody’s Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi and Assistant Director Bernard Yaros wrote in a September 2021 report released amid the last round of brinkmanship on the debt limit that a default on the debt would “upend” global financial markets and the economy.
They added that “even if resolved quickly, Americans would pay for this default for generations, as global investors would rightly believe that the federal government’s finances have been politicized and that a time may come when they would not be paid what they are owed when owed it.”
Some opponents soften
Gaetz, a leading detractor of McCarthy’s speaker bid, appeared to concede a bit by Friday afternoon.
“We had a lot of folks gain a lot of confidence in some of the negotiations, as you saw on that last vote, and it looked like a critical mass,” he told reporters after the 13th ballot. “I think that the rules and personnel changes to the House that we’ve been talking about will do a lot to democratize power to the membership.”
Maryland Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, who is returning to the Appropriations Committee after stepping aside from leadership, said plans to bring the annual government funding bills to the floor under a process that will allow any member to offer amendments could become problematic for GOP leaders.
“Open rules don’t work because what you have is filibuster by amendment,” Hoyer said, noting that many of the amendments will be “gotcha amendments” and not substantive policy proposals.
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