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McCarthy, holdouts discussing possible deal for speaker’s gavel

How to go after earmarks lawmakers insert in appropriations bills is a key issue under discussion

A staffer watches C-SPAN on a television monitor in Statuary Hall during the 10th attempt in the House to elect a speaker in the Capitol on Thursday.
A staffer watches C-SPAN on a television monitor in Statuary Hall during the 10th attempt in the House to elect a speaker in the Capitol on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Republican leader Kevin McCarthy provided a written offer Thursday to his GOP opponents on rules changes and other demands they’ve sought in exchange for supporting him for speaker.

The new concessions from the California Republican — as described by multiple Republicans involved in the negotiations — include promises for floor votes on a balanced budget, congressional term limits and appropriations amendments that would cut spending.

McCarthy also agreed to return the threshold for forcing a floor vote on ousting the speaker to one member.

Republicans aligned with McCarthy say they hope the offer is enough to at least lower the number of party members voting against him from the current 20 that have voted for alternative candidates through 11 ballots over three days.

“This is a matter of the proper assurances to deliver a conservative agenda,” North Carolina Republican Patrick T. McHenry said. “My hope is that we show progress tonight.”

McCarthy declined to say how many votes his offer may win him.

“I’m not putting any timeline on it,” he said. “I just think we’ve got some progress going on. We’ve got members talking. I think we’ve got a little movement, so we’ll see.”

Brian Fitzpatrick, another McCarthy ally who spoke about the offer, called it “phase one” of what is expected to be a two-part deal.

“Tonight is phase one, and then the number [of holdouts] will be trimmed down, I suspect, and we’re going to have separate discussions on separate issues in the second,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.

He declined to provide a specific number of opponents that would remain after that trimming, but acknowledged it will not get McCarthy all the votes he needs to win.

“No matter what the group, they will all have different issues. For some of them it’s personal, and obviously you’re never going to get past that,” he said.

‘Never Kevin’ camp

At least five Republicans have said they’ll never vote for McCarthy: Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Virginia Republican Bob Good, and Andy Biggs and Eli Crane of Arizona.

Gaetz left a meeting in Majority Whip Tom Emmer’s office Thursday night saying he was presented with a deal he didn’t agree to because it includes McCarthy as speaker.

If all 434 House members vote for a speaker by name, McCarthy can’t lose more than four Republican votes and reach a majority of 218.

The majority threshold has been at 217 since the fourth ballot after one of McCarthy’s supporters, Indiana Republican Victoria Spartz, switched her vote to “present.” She said she would switch back if McCarthy had enough other votes to win.

[Another day, similar result: Adjournment with no speaker]

McCarthy has said he’s willing to win by having some of his opponents vote “present,” although none have yet committed to doing so.

Still, Fitzpatrick said he thinks some of the “never Kevin” camp could be convinced to move, but that won’t happen until they see how many opponents the phase-one offer flips.

“That’s when we’ll have a smaller crew and we will be able to address them one by one and figure out who can be worked with,” he said.

McCarthy was more optimistic when asked if he’s concerned there may still be more than four members who might not vote for him.

“No, I think we’re good,” he said.

Unresolved issues

South Carolina Republican Ralph Norman, one of the holdouts, seemed pleased with the offer but said there were still things opponents were seeking like an agreement to hold floor votes on earmarks in appropriations bills.

Conservatives tried unsuccessfully to restore a Republican Conference rule banning earmarks in November. As the speaker vote approached, they instead asked McCarthy to agree to have all earmarks voted on, with a two-thirds threshold to include in spending bills.

“Earmarks have not been addressed. And that’s a big concern,” Norman said, describing McCarthy’s offer as “round one” of negotiations. “We got a ways to go,” he said.

“Earmarks are an issue. We just had 7,200 of them,” added House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., referencing local projects in the recently enacted $1.7 trillion omnibus package.

After leaving the meeting in Emmer’s office late Thursday, Perry said earmarks were still an outstanding issue.

McCarthy did agree to hold floor votes on Norman’s proposed constitutional amendment to impose congressional term limits — three terms for House members and two for senators — and a balanced budget resolution, two concessions which he said are “huge to me.”

The budget resolution vote would be on either the Republican Study Committee proposal that gets to balance over seven years or a proposal from Russ Vought, who was budget chief for former President Donald Trump, that would wipe out the deficit in 10 years.

Still, Norman said he expected to continue voting for Florida Republican Byron Donalds when the House votes on another speaker ballot Friday.

Ousting the speaker

One of the more controversial Freedom Caucus proposals from the start has been about restoring an old House rule on the motion to vacate, the procedural mechanism for ousting the speaker, which Democrats significantly altered after taking back the majority in 2019.

McCarthy’s latest offer would return the threshold for filing a privileged resolution moving to vacate the speaker’s chair to one member, after he had set it at five in a rules package released Sunday night. The change is not practically that much different after McCarthy agreed to drop the threshold from Democrats’ rule, which required the majority of a party caucus.

“That’s the way it’s always been,” he said.

Fitzpatrick said Freedom Caucus members “have implored us that they will not misuse it but it’s more of a principle thing with them.” He added that there’s nothing in the offer he found offensive.

McCarthy was not worried about losing support from his allies.

“We have a five-seat majority,” he said. “So it’s not one side’s going to get more [than] another. It’s the entire conference is going to have to learn how to work together. So it’s better that we go through this process right now so we can achieve the things we want to achieve for the American public, what our commitment was.”

The new offer, if agreed on, will involve filing a new rules package, which the House would vote on after a speaker is elected.

Some other items under discussion, like committee assignments and commitments that leadership will not get involved in primary campaigns, are not part of the rules package.

Norman said he was not aware of the offer including anything about placing more members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus on prime committees. McCarthy’s opponents had demanded proportional representation to other ideological groups in the conference.

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., is seen outside a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on Tuesday, January 3, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

But Fitzpatrick said that it did include a commitment for diverse committee membership.

McCarthy had previously agreed in generalities to improve the balance of committee assignments. There was some concern he would offer his opponents subcommittee gavels in exchange for their support, but he said Thursday that’s not part of the offer.

“People are gonna still have to earn chairmanships, their subcommittee chairs,” Nebraska Republican Don Bacon said McCarthy told him. “I think we may try to expand the committee so folks from left to right in our conference are all represented in all these committees.”

Bacon said it would be good to have more Freedom Caucus members on the Appropriations Committee, for example, since their primary complaint was about spending.

“Then they can get involved from the beginning of these bills and they get a say early,” he said. “Right now they don’t, they get all this stuff before it goes on the floor and they feel like it’s too late. I think there’s some wisdom in getting some Freedom Caucus members on all these committees.”

McCarthy ally Dusty Johnson said most Republicans involved in the negotiations are trying to keep quiet about the details after previous leaks briefly upended the talks. But the South Dakota Republican said he expected “informal conversations” to continue through Thursday night in an effort to finalize the offer into a more formal deal with McCarthy’s detractors.

Dan Crenshaw commended his fellow Texas Republicans Chip Roy and Michael Cloud as holdouts that helped move negotiations in “a positive direction,” while criticizing unnamed others who “just want to burn the house down because they think that’s a good idea.”

Despite having to deal with some of those hardcore opponents, McCarthy remained optimistic things would end with him as speaker and the conference unified.

“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” he said. “And if we finish well, we’ll be very successful.”

Valerie Yurk and Megan Mineiro contributed to this report.

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