By OLIVIA BEAVERS and SARAH FERRIS | Last Updated: May 8, 2023, 9:46 p.m. EDT
Kevin McCarthy has managed to turn his most ardent detractors on the right into tentative allies — but he shouldn’t get too comfortable.
While the conversion lasts, it couldn’t come at a better time for the House speaker. Any debt limit deal he negotiates with President Joe Biden will require the full faith of the conservative wing of the House GOP conference, particularly the 20 or so holdouts who opposed him for speaker in January before he won them over with concessions.
Those members are mostly pleased with McCarthy's performance since he won the job after an excruciating spectacle.
“I'm pretty happy with him,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), one of the 20 initial detractors, adding he’d give McCarthy’s tenure as speaker an “A.” But Norman noted that could change if the speaker budges in debt talks with Democrats.
But Norman and others on the right flank have made clear their praise is conditional, as they look to McCarthy to carry the party through the next phase of Washington’s debt fight.
Before the speaker enters the thick of those negotiations, POLITICO took a look at six major promises McCarthy made to conservatives in January — and how he’s done at keeping them:
It was one of House conservatives’ biggest demands: more representation on key committees and in senior roles. They got both, and they’re still bragging about it.
At a House Freedom Caucus fundraiser in Tennessee last month, the conservative group’s chair Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) boasted to donors about what it extracted from McCarthy. That included gaining the Homeland Security Committee gavel for a group member after securing Rep. Jim Jordan’s (R-Ohio) eventual chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee (he first served as the top Republican on the House Oversight panel).
Jordan’s position, Perry claimed at the event, was based on “leverage, too.” In reality, though, that position had long been expected given Jordan and McCarthy’s increasingly close relationship.
Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.), a member of the Freedom Caucus who was present at the event, now chairs the homeland security panel after the protracted speakership battle.
“Now we knew we were going to have a dog in the fight … we also knew the competition,” Perry said of the homeland chairmanship race – apparently referring to Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) — according to an audio recording obtained by POLITICO.
“And one of the conversations was: If that other person becomes the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, then you will not be speaker.”
While the GOP Steering Committee mostly decides panel chairs, the process is heavily influenced by the speaker. (Green's position, as well as other competitive chair positions, were decided by the Steering panel after McCarthy's election on the floor.) Green’s allies have argued that his win was more than just a tradeoff, saying it was a win-win given his resume and vision for the panel. A Crenshaw aide, responding to Perry’s words, called the apparent deal the “worst kept secret in Washington.”
Additionally, two of the GOP’s most conservative members — Reps. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) — were placed on the lower-profile but powerful Rules Committee. It was perhaps the most decentralizing move McCarthy made; the Rules panel decides exactly the way legislation comes to the House floor, empowering Roy and Massie to block certain bills or push for changes.
Conservatives gained more representation on other key committees, too. Two of the 20 holdout members landed on the Financial Services panel and two others got seats on Appropriations. And even Freedom Caucus members who were supportive of McCarthy landed on other top panels, like Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), who received a spot on Energy and Commerce.
House Republicans have created the most open floor process in seven years: McCarthy promised nearly unlimited amendment votes on bills, giving rank-and-file members much more power to shape legislation.
The first test of that vow came on a bill to curb the Biden administration’s use of the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve. And it caused plenty of headaches among the party’s whip team, as they fielded tough amendment votes, but they eventually delivered a GOP win.
But McCarthy has held on to some top-down structure to keep his slim majority in line on massive bills. They abandoned that open-rule promise on the party’s next big energy bill, which they passed in March.
The bigger test, though, will come on massive spending bills later this summer. Government spending bills could see hundreds of proposed amendments if McCarthy holds to his open-rule promises.
Additionally, McCarthy vowed to give members 72 hours to review legislation before a vote — a response to conservative irritation at major bills coming together in cross-party closed-door negotiations and then getting a vote mere hours later. Instead, he promised legislation would pass through committees before being brought to the floor, a process known as “regular order.”
That latter promise fell through on the GOP’s debt plan late last month: The bill, largely written by the leadership team, never saw a committee markup.
Still, most conservatives said they understood the time crunch and didn’t blame McCarthy.
“The debt bill — it didn’t go through committee but it certainly went through conference, at length,” said Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.). “As a result of that, it changed significantly. I think it changed, obviously, for the better.”
There’s still some conservative griping, however. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), one of four Republicans who voted against the debt plan, remarked after the vote that many of his colleagues were happy to forgo regular order as long as their demands made it into the bill.
“I think he's trying to roughly keep whatever deal he made with the guys he made the deal with,” Biggs said of McCarthy. “As an outside observer, I think he's partly doing it.”
House Republicans kicked off their new majority by forming two new investigative panels — one that has bipartisan buy-in and another that Democrats have countered at every turn.
McCarthy won overwhelming bipartisan support to create a panel to explore the Chinese government’s threat to the U.S. – economically and militarily. But Democrats certainly did not support the GOP’s new panel investigating Republican accusations that the federal government uses its power to target conservatives.
While every Republican backed that panel’s creation, some in the party are still waiting to see Jordan successfully break through with his politicization-of-government investigation.
As part of McCarthy's vow to cut back on government spending, he promised a vote on a balanced budget that would effectively eliminate the federal deficit within 10 years. But he’s also repeatedly said he would protect costly programs like Medicare and Social Security, as well as Pentagon funding — which makes a balanced budget all but impossible.
And GOP lawmakers may be waiting a while for that budget plan: McCarthy has put the conference’s long-term budget blueprint on the backburner during debt negotiations with Biden and Democrats.
The House GOP did approve a debt plan that slashed some spending — cutting billions for domestic programs, including food stamps and Medicaid. But Democrats have harshly rejected that plan, and it’s still unclear whether Republicans can force Biden and his party to adopt any major spending reforms.
Not to mention, that plan’s cuts still wouldn’t fulfill the promise to balance the budget.
Republicans also have yet to unveil their spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, though that, too, will need to be negotiated with Democrats.
Days before the midterms, McCarthy vowed that a border bill would be “the first thing” voters would see from his conference. The reality of House Republicans’ four-seat majority quickly complicated that goal.
Centrist Republicans and conservatives drew battle lines on an immigration bill. Case in point: the feud between Texas GOP Reps. Chip Roy and Tony Gonzales, who spent weeks sniping at each other over their widely different views over how to address problems at the border.
GOP leaders, led by Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), ultimately worked to defuse the tensions — coalescing behind a new draft of the bill. Republicans officially rolled out that plan last week and aim to bring it to the floor this week.
But there are still some Republicans raising concerns with its language and provisions in the bill, which could further complicate its passage.
Meanwhile, a long-anticipated vote to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas remains unclear. A group of GOP centrists remain opposed to the idea.
Supporters of lawmaker term limits claim McCarthy promised them their first floor vote in decades. But it’s unclear how important that request was for the speaker’s detractors, as it hasn’t come up much since then.
While that could be partly due to the spending and debt limit fights, which have consumed Washington for weeks and still have no clear solution, the House’s track record on the issue isn’t great. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich brought multiple measures on term limits to the floor in 1995, and every single one failed — some spectacularly so.
Norman, the South Carolina conservative, has a bill that would limit House members to three terms and senators to two; the bill has 96 cosponsors. He says he “absolutely” expects a vote sometime this term.
Yet even conservatives who have pledged to self-impose term limits have blown right past them — see Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), in addition to Norman himself.