As conservatives continue to snarl the House floor in protest, centrists are taking their turn to squeeze Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Behind closed doors on Wednesday, McCarthy’s No. 2 and No. 3 briefed about a dozen Republicans — mostly battleground-seat members — on their plan to take up two bills next week: Rep. Andrew Clyde’s (R-Ga.) bid to nix a Biden administration gun regulation and a separate proposal bill to strengthen limits on taxpayer funding for abortion.
The meeting didn’t go smoothly.
Things got more heated from there, the two Republicans added: Rep. Michelle Fischbach (R-Minn.) confronted Mace for taking to TV and blasting other Republicans for their positions on abortion. Mace responded that the party is losing the battle for public opinion on the issue, arguing that tacking further to the right would hurt the centrists who handed the GOP the majority.
The spat between two rank-and-file Republicans illustrates the immense pressure that McCarthy and his top deputies are under as they try to muscle through conservative policies with a five-seat majority. Conservative hardliners have grabbed attention by paralyzing the House floor, venting their fury at leaders over perceived broken promises, but centrists can wield similar power in their own way if they’re frustrated enough.
In fact, the same tactics that conservative hardliners used this week could convince centrists to join Democrats in halting floor action next week using a different arcane tactic. Losing ground on more agenda items would risk compounding the embarrassment that party leaders faced in recent days.
As they’re tugged by both ideological ends of their conference, the personal friction among senior GOP leaders is starting to show — despite the top trio’s public attempts at a united front. During this week’s conservative rebellion, McCarthy and Scalise began openly accusing each other of triggering the outrage.
“They are two good guys. Let’s stick together,” battleground-seat Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) urged his fellow members on Thursday. “Can’t be divided.”
Yet that blame game could continue as centrists push back against the abortion bill, which would make permanent the abortion limits often shorthanded as the Hyde Amendment. It also extends funding restrictions to all federal funds, rather than certain agencies.
Some Republicans are privately speculating that their centrists could mount their own rebellion by aligning with Democrats to delay a final vote on the abortion bill — exploiting a maneuver that the minority party in the House almost always attempts to no avail. Any kerfuffle that results may not happen next week, however: In a reversal, the abortion funding bill was not included on the GOP’s list of bills for the week ahead.
It’s a huge shift from the House’s first six months or so under McCarthy, when his leadership team mostly managed to paper over the deep differences within their conference.
But after notching one relatively easy win in an energy bill and one much bigger victory — the conservative debt measure that Democrats didn’t expect the House to actually pass — the GOP’s fragile peace appears to have fractured.
At the heart of the discontent is conservative unrest over McCarthy’s debt-limit deal-making with President Joe Biden. Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), who leads the Trump-aligned Freedom Caucus, said Thursday that his members feel that McCarthy’s promises during January’s speaker election were “significantly breached” during the speaker’s talks with Biden.
Yet critics on the right are often loath to explain exactly how McCarthy broke their trust. And asked if frustrated conservatives blame McCarthy or Scalise, Perry offered a telling reply: “There are obviously multiple issues here that need to be resolved.”
Beyond rank-and-file angst, the debt battle revealed cracks in McCarthy’s leadership firmament. The speaker raised eyebrows as he picked his own allies, Financial Services Committee Chair Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) and Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), to take the lead in negotiations with the Biden administration.
Scalise and Emmer were largely sidelined until the final hours of the talks, which eventually fueled frustrations.
It’s all renewed long-running questions about tension between McCarthy and Scalise, who once openly eyed the speaker’s gavel. The duo was prepared to erase their fraught past had November’s midterms yielded the “red wave” the GOP hoped for, but the underwhelming results and McCarthy’s 15-ballot speakership battle renewed mistrust between the men.
Then, after McCarthy’s debt deal landed support from two-thirds of the House GOP, the hard-right opposition metastasized into a floor rebellion this week. Which leaves most of the conference aggravated that roughly a dozen hardliners can successfully neuter their own party leaders.
“You’ve got the tail wagging the dog. You’ve got a small group of people that are pissed off that are keeping the House of Representatives from functioning,” a visibly frustrated Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said Wednesday.
“I think leadership is gonna have to deal with it,” he added.
But how exactly McCarthy’s team might do that remains unclear. After hours of failing to reach a resolution with conservatives, McCarthy was forced to send lawmakers home for the weekend on Wednesday — buying time but building frustration.
Leaders remain in talks with their detractors, but even McCarthy complained on Wednesday that their demands weren’t clear.
“Some of these members, they don’t know what to ask for. There’s numerous different things they’re frustrated about,” McCarthy said. “We’ve got a small majority. There’s a little chaos going on … We’re just going to work through the agenda and get everything done.”
The House is set to return on Monday, and Scalise has vowed that Clyde’s gun bill would get a vote the following day, though he acknowledged that it still remained short on votes.
And with Republicans particularly eager to show voters they can govern after a lackluster midterm election performance, any stalled floor action when members return next week is bound to cause a spike in House GOP blood pressure.
“Of course I’m frustrated,” Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) said. “In my opinion, a conservative should be supporting moving conservative legislation. And that’s not happening right now.”