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Debt bill dissatisfaction threatens deeper GOP rift

Republicans who are unhappy with the deal are largely reserving judgment on action against McCarthy

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As House Republicans prepare for a fractured conference vote on a bipartisan debt limit bill, opponents are warning the break in GOP unity could reverberate beyond the Wednesday night vote.

Kevin McCarthy’s agitators from his 15-ballot election to become speaker are accusing him of violating agreements made during that January fight, with a few questioning whether that merits deploying a procedural tool to try to oust him from the role.

At a minimum, some opponents of the debt limit deal say that the trust and unity the conference built during the speaker’s race negotiations and the past few months of largely intraparty legislative work is being called into question. Frustration over this deal could spill into other legislative efforts, particularly the appropriations process needed to execute the spending caps written into the debt limit deal.

McCarthy, however, is pleased with the agreement he and his negotiators brokered with the White House, calling it “the most conservative deal we ever had.” The California Republican and his allies dismissed the notion that his speakership is at risk as they predict at least two-thirds of the 222-member GOP conference will vote for the debt limit bill.

Still, a sizable chunk of the conference is planning to oppose the bill because they don’t think it cuts spending enough — especially in exchange for suspending the debt limit until Jan. 1, 2025, an estimated $4 trillion increase to the statutory borrowing limit once the suspension is lifted. And a handful of opponents want the bill to allow more spending on defense.

Members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus have been the most vocal opponents of the bill and are actively trying to kill it — with some threatening to vote against the rule that sets parameters for floor debate. Typically rules are adopted on the floor along party lines, and any defections are considered an aggressive message from rank-and-file members to their leaders that they’re unhappy.

“This bill doesn’t get us to fiscal 2022 levels, and that in itself should be enough to vote against the rule,” Freedom Caucus member Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., said.

Broken promises

Cutting discretionary spending by $131 billion to get back to the fiscal 2022 level is something McCarthy promised Freedom Caucus members during the January speaker’s race. Several said Tuesday that he violated that agreement with the debt limit bill, which only cuts $12 billion from the fiscal 2023 topline to cap defense-related accounts at $886 billion and non-defense at $704 billion. Adjustments both in and outside of the bill have some Republicans questioning whether there are any real discretionary spending cuts at all.

“It’s false,” said Arizona GOP Rep. Andy Biggs, a former Freedom Caucus chair, adding that COVID-19 and IRS funding rescissions Republicans sought are now “going to be used to get around the so-called spending caps.”

McCarthy also violated an agreement to ensure any rule reported out of the Rules Committee would have unanimous backing from the nine GOP panel members, according to Freedom Caucus members Chip Roy of Texas and Ralph Norman of South Carolina. The GOP duo voted against reporting the rule for the debt limit bill on Tuesday.

“What was emphatically clear in all of our conversations in January was that we would be reporting things out of the Rules Committee unanimously,” Roy said. Norman, too, said that was his understanding of the agreement.

Norman said leadership did not do a good job of managing expectations on the debt limit negotiations. The House passed a debt limit bill in late April that many Republicans already viewed as a compromise despite it having no Democratic support. And that’s all leadership talked about publicly, even as GOP negotiators began making concessions behind closed doors.

“I expected that that was the minimum we were going to get, not the maximum,” Norman said.

North Carolina Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, one of the Republicans who negotiated with the White House, said they would have liked to communicate more to members about what was coming but it’s not always feasible to share details without talks falling apart.

“It’s never enough,” he said. “It’s very difficult to communicate outside the room when you’re in the midst of a lot of things happening. And the deal didn’t fully come together until the final, final days.”

Motion to vacate

While most Freedom Caucus members aren’t threatening McCarthy’s job yet, several are not ruling out filing a privileged motion to vacate that would force a vote on whether to oust the speaker.

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., who voted for McCarthy during 10 of the 15 speaker ballots and did not vote in the other five, raised the question about the motion to vacate on a Freedom Caucus call over the holiday weekend.

“I was just asking because Kevin promised that we would appropriate at 2022 levels,” Buck said in an interview. “And I said, ‘If he breaks that promise, are we going to reconsider this?’ Chairman Perry says it would be too early, it’d be premature. ‘We should consider it after we see what happens with this vote.’”

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., told reporters the same thing at a press conference Tuesday where members of his group expressed opposition to the debt limit bill.

“I’ll let each member speak for themselves. But for me, I am focused on defeating this bill,” Perry said. “What happens post that and the agreements that we have, we will decide once we’ve determined the disposition of this bill in its finality.”

One Freedom Caucus member who told reporters after the press conference he was considering the motion to vacate is Rep. Dan Bishop. However, the North Carolina Republican later clarified on CNN that he wouldn’t make that decision in isolation, even though it only takes one member to force a vote on ousting the speaker.

“I always work with others,” Bishop said. “My view is it’s going to have to be done.”

McCarthy said he’s confident his speakership is secure and he’s not worried about Bishop or any other member filing a motion to vacate.

“No, that’s his choice,” he said.

Buck said the motion to vacate is “always on the table,” but the vote margin on final passage of the debt limit bill Wednesday night will likely influence the course of that discussion.

“If leadership doesn’t get 150, [or] 160 votes, then I think they ought to be a little nervous,” he said.

‘Not fair to him’

Several other Freedom Caucus members declined to speculate about the motion to vacate or otherwise dismissed the move as premature.

“That’s not fair to him,” Norman told reporters after the first in-person GOP conference meeting since the debt limit deal was announced. “This is the first meeting we’ve had. In fairness to him, we’ve got to play off him and see how he reacts. To threaten to kick him out now — that’s not right.”

Notably, several Republicans said the two-and-a-half-hour conference meeting Tuesday night went better than expected given the opponents’ public outcries over the bill.

“The tenor of the room is not divisive,” Missouri GOP Rep. Eric Burlison said while leaving the conference meeting. “There’s a lot of very cool heads in there right now.”

Burlison said he is voting against the bill because he “can’t stomach” what’s expected to be a $4 trillion debt limit increase. But he doesn’t blame McCarthy for the deal he cut with the White House. “I don’t envy his position. We’re in a difficult situation,” he said.

Even Freedom Caucus member Andy Ogles, R-Tenn., who voted against McCarthy in the early ballots of the speaker’s race, said his dissatisfaction with the deal isn’t a reflection of McCarthy’s leadership.

“I’ve been very pleased with Speaker McCarthy, quite frankly. Kind of every promise he’s made to the caucus, he’s kept,” Ogles said.

While Republicans have had some behind-the-scenes legislative fights since the speaker’s race, they’ve ultimately come together on top party priorities and successfully passed major legislative packages dealing with issues like energy and border security, as well as other smaller messaging bills.

Rep. Michael Cloud, one of McCarthy’s initial holdouts in the speaker’s race, said that battle was about what Republicans were going to stand for as a conference. The Texas Republican said he doesn’t like the “fuzzy-math shell game” in the debt limit deal, but his “primary overriding concern is what comes after” as Republicans work to fulfill other promises to their constituents.

“I like to think I’m still optimistic that we’ll be able to see this maybe as a speed bump in the process,” Cloud said.

Bishop was more critical as he claimed that McCarthy and his negotiators decided to “forfeit” the “dynamic force” of a unified House Republican majority they’ve built in recent months.

“Why would you give that up?” Bishop said. “Can you calculate the cost of surrendering that advantage? But maybe worse, you know, in Washington I thought the least present quality was courage. But I’m afraid truth tops that. This bill … is chock-full of cosmetic things, artificial things, things that actually have been outright lied about.”

Still, Bishop acknowledged that leadership was unlikely to be swayed to change course unless a majority of Republicans vote against the debt limit bill. That would violate another McCarthy commitment and general House GOP orthodoxy to ensure any bills brought to the floor have majority support from the conference.

Leaders of other GOP factions dismissed concerns that this deal will cause any long-term damage to party unity.

“I think the worst time to assess the damage from a storm is in the middle of a storm,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, who chairs the Republican Main Street Caucus. He predicted that the damage is likely to be less than it currently appears as he noted that bonds various GOP factions forged during the speaker’s race negotiations are strong and not easily broken.

“I think we can all work together,” said Oklahoma Rep. Kevin Hern , who chairs the Republican Study Committee. “We’ve done it in the past. We don’t always vote 100 percent [together as] Republicans. And so I don’t see that happening this time, obviously … But I think everybody will move on.”

Caitlin Reilly contributed to this report.

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