Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Wednesday dismissed any threats to his Speakership position, framing the conservative revolt that’s immobilized the GOP agenda as a temporary hiccup that will eventually make the Republican conference — and his leadership spot — stronger.
“We’ve been through this before. We’re the small majority,” he told reporters in the Capitol. “You work through this and you’re going to be stronger.”
The comments arrive as McCarthy and his allies are scrambling to appease a group of roughly a dozen conservatives who blindsided GOP leaders Tuesday by blocking passage of a rule to allow a handful of Republican messaging bills to come to the floor this week.
The bills dealt with gas stoves and regulatory reforms, but their content was not the issue: The conservatives were protesting McCarthy’s support for a debt limit agreement with President Biden, which passed through Congress last week in the face of opposition from conservatives and liberals alike.
From his right flank, McCarthy faced immediate accusations that the bipartisan deal violated the promises he’d made during the marathon Speaker’s race in January, when it took 15 ballots — and a long list of concessions to his conservative detractors — to win the gavel.
Among those concessions, McCarthy had agreed to change House rules to make it easier to remove a sitting Speaker — a change that’s gained greater significance in the wake of the debt ceiling vote, when some conservatives are weighing their option of vacating the chair.
But McCarthy on Wednesday defended his track record, saying the conservatives were unrealistic to think they could push their right-wing wish-list into law given the divided powers in Washington.
“You’re not going to get 100 percent of what you want,” he said, “so you can’t take hostages.”
The Speaker predicted the sides will come together to defuse the internal tensions, end the revolt, pass the stalled rule — and his Speakership will survive the ordeal.
“I’m not worried about the rule. I’m not [worried] about the Speakership or anything else,” he said. “If you’re worried about those things, you’re never going to govern.”
Complicating the path to a resolution, the conservatives don’t appear to have a ready list of demands that might break the impasse. Some have suggested they want the power to amend every bill that hits the floor. Others have suggested they want to revisit all the concessions McCarthy made in January, to make them more rigid. And still others suggested their problems with the Speaker are more fundamental than any structural changes could fix.
“There’s a lack of confidence … with the Speaker and leadership,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said Wednesday morning. “And we told him that; we told him this yesterday.”
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), another prominent member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, echoed that message, saying the debt ceiling agreement has eroded the conservatives’ faith in McCarthy to hold the line on the other big bipartisan fights to come, including the effort to fund the government beyond September.
In a message to those conservatives, McCarthy said the spending caps negotiated in the debt ceiling package were not indicative of the ultimate spending levels in 2024 and 2025.
“Whenever you put a cap, that’s the ceiling,” he said. “We can always spend less. I’ve always advocated for spending less money.”
But that message doesn’t seem to be resonating with his detractors.
“The Speaker formed a coalition with Democrats to get us a $4 trillion national debt. And I continued to be concerned because he hasn’t repudiated that coalition,” Biggs said. “And my guess is he’s prepared to do that again on the next three must-pass bills: Farm Bill, NDAA and the budget.”
Heading into the debt ceiling debate, many political observers of all stripes had questioned whether the new Speaker — who had little experience negotiating bipartisan deals on big issues — could pull it off. Following passage of the bill, McCarthy had taken a victory lap, frequently highlighting how he’s been “underestimated” since taking the gavel.
That celebration has come to an abrupt end, as the conservatives flexed their muscles in a bid to exert more influence over the Speaker in big policy battles. But McCarthy predicted Wednesday that the revolt, while a short-term setback to the GOP agenda, would pay long-term dividends by lowering the bar of expectations once again.
“A lot of you were beginning to not underestimate us when we had such a good victory last week. So I think this kind of helps lower [expectations] again, so you’ll underestimate us, so we’ll have more victories,” he said. “So in the end, when I look back, this may be a very big, positive thing.”
Mychael Schnell and Emily Brooks contributed.