Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is getting used to proving his critics and doubters wrong.
First through the four-day, 15-ballot Speaker election and most recently with House Republicans’ debt limit and spending cut bill, McCarthy has shown that he can successfully navigate the rocky ideological waters in House Republicans’ slim, four-seat majority.
“You guys have been wrong. You’ve underestimated us,” the California Republican told reporters after passage of the debt limit bill on Wednesday.
Both successes came after late-night scrambles, caving to last-minute changes in order to win over holdouts — and some drama on the floor. Even so, McCarthy managed to get multiple lawmakers who have never voted for a debt limit increase behind his plan, while operating with a far narrower majority than his GOP predecessors Paul Ryan (Wis.) and John Boehner (Ohio).
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said House Republicans “shocked the rest of Washington, D.C. — including the White House — because I think they were all betting and rooting against us passing a bill.”
“Well, now we’ve done it,” Scalise said of the debt limit bill.
The next test for McCarthy will be tougher: Trying to get a deal with President Biden that doesn’t alienate the conservative members he painstakingly worked to win over.
The debt bill was crafted as a move to get Biden to negotiate with McCarthy on agreeing to spending cuts as a condition of raising the debt ceiling — and not intended as a final package. But some conservative House Republicans who voted for the debt bill on Wednesday are signaling that they will not support any meaningfully softer package.
“I wanted double what was in there,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said. “I’m not interested in anything coming back but what we voted on.”
The Republicans’ bill paired a $1.5 trillion debt limit increase with a host of Republican priorities that included reverting federal budget levels back to fiscal 2022 levels, rescinding unspent COVID funds, and ending Biden’s student debt forgiveness. It also included a large energy package that House Republicans passed last month and a measure to boost congressional authority over federal rulemaking.
The package was the result of months of discussions that ramped up at the House GOP issues retreat in March.
“We’ve made it very clear that the process is not always pretty,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) said. But, he added, bringing members into the process early “is making for a much higher quality final product.”
And rather than cripple the conference, members insist that the chaotic Speaker’s race has helped forge the relationships needed to pass tough legislation like this.
“It forced some unlikely bedfellows into a room together. It forced people to get to know one another,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a key leader in getting agreement on McCarthy’s Speakership and on the debt bill. “This House is much more functional as a result [of the Speaker’s election].”
That bottom-up system, though, will not be around if McCarthy can get Biden in a room to discuss the debt limit.
For now, members are trusting the Speaker.
“We are empowering Speaker McCarthy to negotiate,” Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.) said. “He has a clear vision on what this conference wants to see.”
“We put McCarthy in that seat to do this job. He’s exceeded expectations,” Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.) said.
But Ogles is not yet committing to supporting any deal McCarthy secures that he has not seen.
“The path forward is tough,” Ogles said.
Republicans have refused to publicly articulate any “red lines” for debt limit talks beyond refusing to pass a “clean” debt limit increase without any concessions.
“I’m not going to give you some red line because that is just the stupidest thing possible,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said.
“If there are any additions, and subtractions, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said on CNN on Thursday.
And as the clock ticks closer to a potential default, with Congress expected to need to act to raise the debt limit by sometime this summer, it is also putting pressure on McCarthy to fulfill another pledge: to go through regular order to pass 12 appropriations bills rather than a large omnibus spending bill.
“If you look at the calendar we have right now, if you look at where we are in the process, it’s pretty certain that we’re not going to have regular order. I mean, the calendar is not going to favor that,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.
The debt limit negotiations impacts that, Womack said.
But Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said that he thinks Republicans are on course to get the 12 bills done.
“We can’t presuppose what the negotiations going to be,” Joyce said of the debt limit talks. “Obviously, in the end, some people aren’t happy with it, some people will on a bipartisan basis, and we might get to some resolution.”
Biden reiterated on Wednesday that he will not meet with McCarthy on the debt limit but said that he could meet with him on other topics. That leaves some wiggle room for the president and Speaker to meet and strike and come to some agreement that may satisfy both sides, but have some technical separation between the debt limit and budget issues.
With the passage of the bill, Republicans think they have the high ground.
“The person who’s been dragging his feet here while we’ve been doing all this work is President Biden. He’s been off on an Ancestry.com tour of Ireland,” Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) said.
Mychael Schnell contributed.