The marriage between Speaker of the House Rep. Kevin McCarthy and the conservative House Freedom Caucus — a shotgun marriage to be sure — was never destined to last very long. McCarthy, an establishment politician through and through, and the House Freedom Caucus’s GOP revolutionaries never spoke the same language. Eventually, the brief unity they enjoyed fell apart when the realities of Washington set in and the necessity for compromise became paramount.
McCarthy got the best deal he could: the unprecedented freezing of discretionary spending for two years, the clawback of some COVID relief funds, and the promise of future cuts. In truth, this was nowhere near the cuts demanded by Republicans in the GOP House bill. And that has now come back to hurt the speaker and may yet blow up his speakership.
The Freedom Caucus rebels reluctantly gave up the notion they could oust McCarthy in the present political climate. Nobody in the GOP wants a leadership brawl at this time. But that doesn’t mean that the rebels will just give in and go home. And they proved that on Tuesday by surprising the GOP majority in joining Democrats and voting down rules on a major piece of legislation. It’s the first time since 2002 that had happened, and McCarthy was put on notice.
A dozen conservatives tanked a GOP bill on gas stoves as a wake-up call to McCarthy that the conservatives still held the upper hand in their relationship with the speaker.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus, along with a conservative ally, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., gathered on the steps of the Capitol after the voting to rail at how McCarthy, R-Calif., and his leadership team handled negotiations to lift the debt ceiling.
The group warned that all Republican legislation could come to a standstill unless they resolve their internal issues.
Hard-right lawmakers specifically accused GOP leaders of retaliating against one of their own, Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga. They said leadership told Clyde that his bill to protect pistol stabilizing braces would not come to the floor this week because he voted against the rule on the debt deal last week.
With the Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House, it’s difficult to see how McCarthy was supposed to prevail by pushing the nonsensical Republican debt limit bill that had absolutely no path to be passed. The huge cuts in social programs would have been opposed by half the Republicans in the Senate.
The Freedom Caucus needs, above all, a reality check. McCarthy may not be the right person to lead Republicans in the House, but at least he understands the politics of the situation. The GOP debt limit bill passed by the House was far too much, too soon. It took 75 years of deficit spending by both parties to reach the unimaginable number of $31 trillion in debt. It’s going to take a superhuman effort by both parties to come to grips with this existential threat to America.
Also for our VIPs: Conservatives Should Quit Whining About The Debt Deal. Here’s Why
McCarthy’s path to the speakership took 15 rounds of voting. He stayed in power largely by giving the Freedom Caucus what they wanted. But this is a different ballgame now and the conservatives want McCarthy to give his oath of fealty to them again.
It’s not going to happen.
McCarthy has spent months appeasing the Freedom Caucus with messaging bills that will never pass the Senate. But the deal to raise the federal borrowing limit, signed into law days before the United States defaulted on its debts, created the conditions for the speaker to partner with Democrats.
The hard-liners, who shuttled in and out of McCarthy’s office on Tuesday afternoon, want to make clear to McCarthy that he’s still beholden to them and their votes. They have threatened to oppose all legislation brought to the floor unless the speaker agrees, in writing, to a reset.
As I pointed out in January, McCarthy can’t govern the House the way the Freedom Caucus wants him to. It would be tantamount to a political castration. Whether they eventually come to understand that will probably determine how successful Republicans are in governance.