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It’s a very small minority of a slim majority that’s kept the House from moving forward and is on the cusp of derailing Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become speaker.
They don’t speak for the majority of Republicans. The 20 anti-McCarthy Republicans who so far derailed his bid to become House speaker represent less than 10% of the House GOP.
They aren’t the entirety of the Freedom Caucus. The hardliners are less than half the ultraconservative, ultra-MAGA wing of lawmakers.
They’re sort of gaining support. Rep. Victoria Spartz of Indiana became the 21st Republican member-elect to not support McCarthy on Wednesday, although she voted “present” rather than voting for anyone.
The hardliners also don’t speak with one voice.
“I think you need to break the 20 down,” the conservative Republican Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado said on CNN on Wednesday. Buck had been viewed as a possible defector before this week, and he made clear that patience with these votes is waning.
He suggested McCarthy’s deputy, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, as a possible consensus speaker who could speak to three varieties of the 20 anti-McCarthy Republicans.
For some, it’s personal. “There are a few of those 20 that just aren’t going to vote for Kevin McCarthy but would vote for somebody else,” Buck said. The key question is whether that block of “never-McCarthy” House Republicans is larger than the four votes McCarthy can afford to lose.
Others want specific changes. “There are some of the others … who want changes in the rules and there are some others who care about policy,” Buck said. “So I think if Steve (Scalise) meets those three needs, he will be able to move forward and take the speakership.”
Some want to shut things down. Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina has said a non-negotiable for him is if McCarthy is “willing to shut the government down rather than raising the debt ceiling.” That suggests the kind of precarious future funding fights will pose to the economy.
These lawmakers want painful cuts now to end deficit spending. If the US was to default on its debt, it could send the US economy into a tailspin, according to most economists. A government shutdown would be less severe, but they have been unpopular when lawmakers forced them in recent years.
Here are some of the stated reasons and accepted motivations of why these lawmakers are unwilling to support McCarthy.
“We are showing the American people that this process works,” said the Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Scott Perry in rising to nominate Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida as an alternative to McCarthy. That it’s been 100 years since there was such a floor fight is a feature of the moment, Perry argued. “We have said we are not going to take any more of Washington being broken.”
That was echoed by another anti-McCarthy Republican who appeared on CNN, Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina.
“I really think this is democracy in action,” Bishop said. “If you’re not satisfied with Washington as it is, then you can’t be satisfied with doing the same thing as we start this Congress, I’m convinced.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida issued a personal screed against McCarthy on Tuesday.
“Maybe the right person for the speaker of the House isn’t someone who has sold shares in himself for more than a decade to get it,” Gaetz said, standing just in front of his target.
Bishop was less aggressive on CNN when he expressed the problem with McCarthy’s specific leadership.
“The fact is that you never see a specific agenda that you know Kevin McCarthy’s going to go to the mat for, as opposed to sort of pablum or poll-tested language, indicates the problem,” Bishop said. “And it’s been that way for all 14 years he’s been in leadership, with all due respect to him.”
After McCarthy developed amnesia about the January 6, 2021, insurrection and repeatedly paid tribute to Donald Trump, the former president has been trying to help McCarthy out. But the effort has not helped, according to Rep. Lauren Boebert, the Colorado Republican.
“Let’s stop with the campaign smears and tactics to get people to turn against us – even having my favorite president call us and tell us we need to knock this off,” Boebert said on the House floor on Wednesday. “I think it actually needs to be reversed. The president needs to tell Kevin McCarthy that, sir, you do not have the votes and it’s time to withdraw.”
If you watch enough Tucker Carlson on Fox or listen to Steve Bannon’s podcast, you’ll hear the argument that Republicans and Democrats aren’t that different. Carlson often uses the term “uni-party” to blast the funding bills that are signed into law. There’s some of that in the opposition to McCarthy, who has been part of the GOP leadership for years.
“Right now I’m holding the line because I think we need this place to operate differently, and that’s not a partisan statement. It’s just something that I believe,” Rep. Chip Roy of Texas told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday.
Roy said he’s among the fiscal conservatives who want to “stop the train of the swamp,” which he said is made up of Republicans and Democrats, “power brokers and the defense industrial complex.” He argued that the special interests come together to push government funding bills like the $1.7 trillion version passed last month to fund the government through most of 2023.
Roy and Perry also talked about the need for open amendments on the House floor, and Donalds has joined the others who want a single member to be able to force a vote on whether to remove a sitting speaker.
Spartz hasn’t opposed McCarthy, but she didn’t do him any favors when she voted “present” and ate away at his support. She said on CNN on Wednesday that the hardliners have a point about open debate and the amendment process and she wants the House to function differently.
“We have uncontrolled spending, and we can do nothing about it,” Spartz complained, noting the appropriations process does not allow for open amendments. “I think that needs to stop,” she said.
McCarthy did offer numerous concessions to the hardliners like Roy, including a pledge – which seems impossible given the slapdash way legislation comes together – to give lawmakers 72 hours to read a bill before it goes to the floor for a vote.
He also agreed to allow just five Republicans to force a vote to remove the speaker instead of the current requirement that a majority of Republicans join the call.
One complication with finding a McCarthy replacement is that someone like Scalise might realize how much more difficult McCarthy’s concessions will make the job.
When CNN’s Manu Raju and Veronica Stracqualursi asked Donalds, who has been getting votes from the hardliners Wednesday, if he wanted the job, he said, “Nah, not really.”
It’s not entirely true that zero people read these spending bills or that no one can influence what goes into them.
Congressional leaders rely on committees to hash out the vast majority of what goes into the spending bills. Members can request individual spending items. It’s a complicated process and pretty much everyone agrees it is flawed.
On the other hand, those who want open amendments to spending bills would almost surely use them to poison the process.
In other words, once this small minority of lawmakers got the power they crave to blow up spending bills, they would.
“This is a prelude of what’s going to come and the coming attraction when we get up to any big budget matter or the debt ceiling or anything else,” Rep. David Joyce of Ohio, a McCarthy-backer, said on CNN on Wednesday. “There will be a crowd and they’re going to continue to push and shove what they think is the agenda, and they’re 10% of our whole conference.”
Doing the larger math, 10% of the GOP conference is a much smaller minority of the will of voters.