U.S. House brawl over McCarthy raises worries about Republican governance
WASHINGTON, Jan 6 (Reuters) – The bare-bones political battle between Republicans over Kevin McCarthy’s nomination for U.S. House speaker could signal trouble ahead when lawmakers must agree on bigger issues, such as addressing the ceiling of the country’s debt.
Republicans took a slim majority of the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections, breaking President Joe Biden’s Democratic hold on both houses of Congress. But instead of moving quickly on their priorities, a group of about 20 hardliners have blocked the House from getting started by forcing repeated leadership votes.
McCarthy hopes to win the House’s hand in the end by making concessions to his hard-line opponents, but his allies warn that those deals will make his job even more difficult if he wins the presidency, and he needs correct his narrow 222-212 majority.
“They’ve shown we can’t govern and now they’re going to help Biden win before his re-election,” fumed Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Texas conservative who supports McCarthy.
The biggest challenge facing the House of Representatives in the coming months will be addressing the $31.4 trillion federal debt limit, which the US Treasury is expected to reach at the end of this year.
Congress has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in recent years over deadlocks over raising the debt ceiling, which is needed to cover the costs lawmakers previously agreed to take on.
A default in 2011 led Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the US credit rating for the first time, jolting financial markets. Congress finally managed to lift the debt ceiling in December 2021 only because Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to a rule change that allows him to do so.
That angered many House Republicans, including some who are now leading the opposition to McCarthy and demanding greater control over the House agenda.
Republican Representative Andy Biggs at the time called McConnell’s deal “insulting and dangerous.”
A shutdown this year could rattle the global economy at a time when fears of recession are already widespread.
McCarthy and many hard-line Republicans have also vowed to punish Senate Republicans who helped pass a December 2022 bill that kept the government funded through September, avoiding a shutdown.
Another opponent, Representative Ralph Norman, said he would not vote for McCarthy because he would not commit to forcing a government shutdown, adding, “It’s a matter of faith.”
Such a maneuver, hardliners claim, could force deep spending cuts including changes to the Social Security and Medicare programs, moves they say are needed to address the nation’s mounting debt.
A special concession agreed to by McCarthy, according to one source, would allow any member of the House to propose removing the speaker at any time, through a procedure called a “motion to vacate the chair.”
Lawmakers tried to oust House speakers by invoking the rule in 1910 and in 2015, when former Republican Speaker John Boehner resigned after a hardline conservative filed a petition to overturn it.
Under Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi, such a move could only be made with the support of a majority of either party. McCarthy’s opponents now want to restore the rule to what it was before Pelosi’s reign.
“The problem for him is that with every release, he has to wake up every day wondering if he’s still going to have his job,” said Democratic Representative Richard Neal.
Boehner and his successor as speaker, fellow Republican Paul Ryan, both left office after clashing with hard-line conservatives, whose influence has since grown.
“Individual members can now feel emboldened to call a motion to impeach, raise a stink, or disrupt Congress if they’re not getting what they want,” said Kevin Seifert, a former aide to Ryan, who decided not to seek re-election in 2018 after the caucus took a more difficult right path during Donald Trump’s presidency.
“This will continue for the rest of this Congress, regardless of who is president,” he added.
McCarthy has also agreed to give members of the House Freedom Caucus a key rules panel that has jurisdiction over legislation set for votes, the source said, potentially making the House floor more difficult to governed.
Other concessions, including one that would require 72 hours before a bill comes up for a vote, are likely to slow House business.
“It’s all about empowering us to stop the car in this city from doing what it does,” said Representative Chip Roy, a leading opponent of McCarthy.
“I am open to anything that will give me the power to defend my constituents against this god forsaken city.”
Reporting by David Morgan, additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Gram Slattery; Editing by Scott Malone and Cynthia Osterman
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