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Is House logjam a one-time event, or the new normal for McCarthy?

Rules votes normally not subject to whip counts, Scalise says

A rules revolt from within the GOP conference could mean
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., right, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., have to work together more.
A rules revolt from within the GOP conference could mean Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., right, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., have to work together more. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In a way, the revolt that bottled up the House agenda on Tuesday was not consequential because it stalled action on bills that were never likely to become law. But the unanswered question was whether it was a sign of a new reality in the 118th Congress that would shape how, and if, major bills get done.

After advisories throughout the day that the House would meet to vote on reconsidering a rule that was defeated on Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise’s office said late in the afternoon there would be no votes on Wednesday.

The procedural vote’s defeat came when 11 Republicans led by members of the House Freedom Caucus joined every Democrat in rejecting a rule to set the framework for debate on a package of bills. It was the first time since the end of the House session in 2002 that a rule was defeated, and Scalise’s description of what happened indicates how unlikely an event it was. 

“The whip doesn’t whip rules, typically,” said Scalise, a Louisiana Republican who previously held the post of Republican whip. “The whip whips bills, you know, I used to do that job. You whip the bills that are coming to the floor.”

Dissent within a majority party’s ranks is not unusual. But Josh Huder, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Government Affairs Institute, noted that usually the majority party would provide enough support to advance special rules even when the underlying bill was a bipartisan measure that might see more substantial opposition from the majority.

Last week, Democratic votes were required to set the ground rules for floor debate on the budget package that provided for a suspension of the debt limit.

“Even when the majority may not have the votes to pass a bill, they still back their leaders’ authority to control the House floor and agenda,” Huder said on Twitter on Tuesday night. “[Speaker Kevin McCarthy] has temporarily lost this control, until, apparently, he concedes to adhere to promises that limit his flexibility and discretion.”

Scalise expressed confidence that the House Republicans would work through the most recent set of obstacles to their agenda.

“There were rules that were volatile when President Trump was in office, and we had a Republican House and Senate. So, you know, governing, governing always has its challenges,” Scalise said.

The vote, 206-220, came against a rule for consideration of several bills to limit executive branch power, especially when it comes to regulating gas stoves. (Scalise provided a 12th “no” GOP vote, which allows him to bring the measure back up for reconsideration.)

The dispute was fueled by last week’s passage of a debt limit measure McCarthy negotiated with President Joe Biden, and not with the underlying bills, which the GOP opponents of the rule supported. In fact, the measures were such red meat for the base they were not likely to become law — the White House had already said Biden would veto two of bills and opposed the other two. 

But the rogue members’ action left open the question of what would come next when the House must consider bipartisan policy priorities.

Along with the annual spending bills needed to keep the government operating, House and Senate panels are working to draft the annual defense authorization that is a magnet for policy measures, and reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and craft a multi-year farm bill, among other measures. 

Each time, McCarthy and other members of the House Republican leadership may be faced with an unpalatable choice: whether to provide incentives to keep conservative members like those in the House Freedom Caucus on board, or accept changes to rules to get Democrats to provide votes.

That will likely come to a head when the appropriations process gets underway, if not well before. The defense authorization passes perennially, and the farm bill is a particular priority of Senate Republicans led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

McCarthy, speaking with reporters Wednesday, said he can be pulled in all directions both within his own conference and with the Senate.

But he stressed that the result of Tuesday’s vote did not particularly worry him, since he was more of a “risk-taker” than past speakers who might have just pulled the rule from the board when it looked as though the votes were not there to pass it.

“I’m not worried about the rule, about the speakership or anything else,” McCarthy said. “I mean, if you’re worried about those things, you’ve never going to govern.”

In talks with some of the breakaway members on Wednesday, McCarthy opened the door to the House voting to spend less than Congress agreed to in the debt limit package. 

GOP members who opposed the leadership on Tuesday said that measure allowed more discretionary spending than the government spent in fiscal 2022 and thereby broke a promise McCarthy made when he won a prolonged battle for the speakership in January.

McCarthy denied making such an ironclad promise Wednesday. 

“We never promised we’re going to be all at ’22 levels,” he told reporters. “I said we would strive to get to the ’22 level or the equivalent … amount of cut. We’ve met all that criteria.”

The debt limit law set a defense spending cap at $886 billion, a roughly 3 percent increase over this year’s level, as Biden requested. Nondefense spending would be capped at $704 billion, a $40 billion or 5 percent reduction from fiscal 2023. However, the two parties made side deals, including add-ons above the statutory caps, that Democrats say would keep nondefense spending essentially flat.

As he worked to placate his conservative detractors, McCarthy suggested Wednesday the House could still agree to write appropriations bills that spend less than the debt limit deal allows.

“The one thing you’ve got to realize, whenever you put a cap, that’s the ceiling,” he said. “We can always spend less. I’ve always advocated for spending less money.”

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