What’s in McCarthy’s emerging deal with conservatives — and why it could work

By | January 7, 2023

As Kevin McCarthy gets closer to the speakership, his new conservative supporters are raking in more power.

The GOP leader offered a slew of concessions to win over holdouts as he pushes to claim the gavel by dawn on Saturday. They include some changes that harken back to the tea party era — think budget austerity measures and the empowerment of rank-and-file members to depose a speaker. But there are other, newer demands that could carry just as much weight, such as conservative seats on a powerful panel that controls the House floor.

Much of what McCarthy extended to conservatives, particularly on spending and the debt limit, puts the House on a collision course with the Democratic-led Senate and President Joe Biden. Broadly speaking, the deal that could carry the California Republican to the speakership effectively leverages conservatives’ votes for more influence in the new majority.

“It’s gonna take a lot of work and a lot of tough decisions to get us where we need to be,” said Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), a member of GOP leadership and early Freedom Caucus player who supports the changes. “To quote Bill Clinton, we need to usher in a second age of ‘Big government’s over.’”

Yet the bulk of what McCarthy and conservatives tentatively agreed to, particularly when it comes to spending deals that will need Democratic sign-off to become law, falls far short of a guarantee. And for other corners of the GOP conference, the giveaways to win over more than a dozen of McCarthy’s conservative critics will be tough to swallow.

One of McCarthy’s negotiators, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, described some of the spending goals as “aspirational.”

Perhaps the most high-profile of the concessions to conservatives, explained by Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) to his colleagues on a call Friday morning, is for the House GOP to present a budget that balances over 10 years — capping discretionary spending at fiscal 2022 levels or lower, according to three Republicans familiar with the plan.

The deal doesn’t necessarily include Pentagon cuts, but any arrangement that does won’t sit well with hawks on the Armed Services and Appropriations panels who’ve touted securing billions of dollars more than Biden sought for defense, even while Democrats controlled all of Washington.

“Seems like we could be backing ourselves into sequestration,” Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), a military veteran who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, told McCarthy and allies on a private conference call to McCarthy earlier Friday, according to three Republicans on the call. Those automatic cuts were a hallmark of the desperation budget deal from a decade ago.

Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) also voiced concern on the call about the proposed spending cuts’ effect on defense, those people said.

A second budgetary measure included in the agreement, according to two Republicans, is an idea from Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.): In the event of a looming shutdown, the House would pass a stopgap spending bill that includes 98 percent of current funding — triggering automatic cuts to incentivize Congress to finish its work on appropriations.

Another significant procedural change, conveyed by McCarthy and his team to some members, is that conservatives will hold three seats on the powerful House Rules Committee, according to three people familiar with the agreement.

Because Republicans can only afford to lose two votes on that panel, which determines which bills come to the floor, stacking it with conservatives would enable them to tank legislation before it comes to a full chamber vote. McCarthy allies noted that any bill opposed by three conservatives would likely fail regardless, indicating that they’d rather have an ugly fight in committee than on the floor.

“We’ll be fine. We’ve had plenty of Freedom Caucus members before,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), incoming chair of the Rules Committee.

Reverting back to fiscal 2022 levels, as the emerging agreement envisions, would amount to a roughly $75 billion, or 10 percent, cut to defense programs if GOP leaders don’t spare the Pentagon — a figure that alarms many Republicans across the conference.

But many of them acknowledge that the effect may be limited, because even if a cut of that magnitude passed the House, the Democratic-led Senate would likely reject it outright.

Summing up some of the consternation outside the House chamber later, senior Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said: “Well, that’s just it. You open a whole other can of worms … It will be an ongoing battle.”

Still, some defense hawks downplayed the possibility of slashing the Pentagon budget, noting that their ranks far outnumber those of fiscal hardliners who want reductions. (One GOP aide said the agreement with conservatives was on the overall fiscal year 2022 spending number, not a specific commitment to cut defense.)

“Most of us won’t vote for cuts to defense,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told reporters. “You can bring it to the floor. There’s enough Republicans who are not going to cut defense spending.”

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher, who also sits on the Armed Services panel, echoed that: “There’s a ton of defense hawks that are necessary to get to the math of 218.”

Incoming Armed Services Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) declined to discuss McCarthy’s pact with conservatives after privately venting his frustration to some colleagues this week. But he insisted he isn’t concerned: “I didn’t make that deal,” Rogers said. “I can’t talk about it right now, but I’m not worried about it.”

Each major element of McCarthy’s deal with the right flank — closer to agreement but still short of final status as of Friday evening — has pushed him closer to landing the speaker’s gavel after four paralyzing days of stalemate.

Some Republicans argue the concessions are broadly about changing the culture of the House to abide by a set of firmer rules, even though it has irked rank-and-file members who viewed the conference’s 20 holdouts on the speaker election as kidnappers trying to claim a ransom and shoot their hostage.

And it’s still not clear that the GOP leader has all the votes he needs yet. Rep.-elect Keith Self (R-Texas), who switched his vote on Friday, signaled as much in his statement moving to support McCarthy, alluding to “obstructionists” in the mix who are opposing the Californian for self-promotional purposes.

But despite the grumbling, McCarthy’s machinations may finally be working after the four-say stalemate. He flipped a total of 15 Republicans earlier Friday, surprising even some members of his leadership team, and Republicans now say it’s possible he could secure the gavel late Friday night — ending a protracted, public battle that has torn at some leadership egos.

Some Republicans already fear McCarthy’s concessions could come back to haunt him and their conference as he tries to govern with a slim majority. For instance, some members argue it will be tough for McCarthy to hold onto the gavel if — or perhaps when — any member, Democrat or Republican, decides to force a vote on toppling the speaker.

When Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) raised concerns about Democrats weaponizing that power to challenge McCarthy should he become speaker, the leader told her not to worry, arguing Republicans would band together and “rally” against it.

He also sought to assuage a series of other worries, telling members he didn’t give anything away that predetermines who gets a committee gavel and that “people are not being punished in the process” of the negotiations, according to Republicans on the call.

His comments were partly a nod to Rep. Andy Harris’ efforts to claim control of a subcommittee that would oversee the nation’s biggest pot of domestic spending — a push that infuriated his fellow appropriators.

While Harris got no assurances on that gavel, the Marylander was one of the dozen-plus conservative dissenters who flipped to back McCarthy on Friday.