Jim Jordan and other key conservative firebrands have caused a fair share of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy‘s biggest headaches. But instead of leading the rebellion this time, they helped him quash it.
As the House Freedom Caucus was preparing to discuss whether to officially oppose the speaker’s bipartisan debt deal — a move that would potentially galvanize conservative opposition — Jordan (R-Ohio) phoned several fellow members with a request, according to a person familiar with the calls. The former chair of the group urged them to hold back, effectively giving conservatives who wanted to vote with McCarthy license to do so.
Jordan, a longtime McCarthy antagonist turned ally, almost got his wish. The group took no official position until hours before the vote, when most members had already made up their minds.
The beloved House Freedom Caucus co-founder — who gravitated toward McCarthy after the now-speaker tapped him for a senior spot on the Oversight Committee — helped out in other ways. The Ohio lawmaker spoke up in favor of the deal in private calls and meetings, including taking the mic at a closed-door huddle on Tuesday night, just hours after many of his fellow conservatives had spent the day trashing the deal.
And he publicly denounced as a “terrible idea” Rep. Dan Bishop’s talk of moving to remove McCarthy over his compromise with President Joe Biden. By Wednesday afternoon, Bishop (R-N.C.) was refusing to discuss his oust-McCarthy idea, dismissing it as a preoccupation of “fascinated” reporters.
Now, McCarthy has triumphed on one of his toughest votes yet, with rumblings of booting him largely extinguished, at least for now. Asked about the possible long-term impact of the debt deal on conservative goodwill, Jordan said he didn’t think there would be any.
“No, I think we’ve got a good record of doing what we told them we were going to do,” he said in an interview.
The backing from Jordan, along with other once unlikely conservative allies with virtually no record of supporting past budget deals like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), has proven to be a lifeline for McCarthy. He’s spent months, and in some cases years, taking steps to win them over, with a plum committee assignment here, a desired debt provision there.
Instead of kowtowing to his most far-right members, McCarthy was forced by the reality of divided government to take a divide-and-conquer strategy on must-pass legislation: Cut a deal with Democrats that does just enough to win over a clutch of conservatives with Freedom Caucus cred, and hope the remaining critics lack the collective willpower to tank the agreement.
If most Republicans get on board, it means threats against his speakership won’t gain real traction. And with two-thirds of the GOP conference backing the deal Wednesday, it seemed to be working.
“We didn’t do it by taking the easy route,” McCarthy said in a celebratory post-vote press conference. “It wasn’t an easy fight, I had people on both sides upset.”
But he added: “I think we did pretty damn good for the American people.”
It’s an approach that McCarthy will likely need to return to repeatedly heading into a packed fall schedule. Government funding, Pentagon policy and a contentious farm bill will all require a sizable GOP majority in addition to Democratic backing.
And this is probably not the last time he’ll need to lean on conservative allies like Jordan, a relationship that has paid dividends after McCarthy continuously elevated the most famous face of the House Freedom Caucus on high-profile committees.
“I think it’s about like you’d expect. I think the bulk of the center right conference is gonna support this. I think some of the more colorful members on the edges are not,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), an ally of McCarthy, said before the vote. “There was never going to be any kind of a deal that was gonna get Bob Good and Tim Burchett on board. I don’t know that this is unfolding in a way that is particularly surprising.”
Some, however, aren’t ready to give McCarthy a pass. And others are indicating trouble is still brewing. Asked about whether there are ongoing discussions about a motion to vacate, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said he doesn’t know what to make of it after having “multiple” people call him “today really bugged by how this has gone down.”
“There are people, not [Freedom Caucus], who came up to me and told me this very same thing today,” Biggs said, leaving the floor after the debt bill passed the House. “And they’re using rather colorful language. They were telling me that it’s not good. And in that, in their opinion, that they probably just shot Republican’s agenda next year.”
Some aren’t ready to give McCarthy a pass, however, indicating they wanted to see how the upcoming fight over spending bills plays out. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said she was afraid the “terrible” debt bill might “weaken us in the appropriations process.” When asked about threats to strip McCarthy of his gavel, she replied: “We’ll see what happens.”
“I know that there’s a lot of members that are upset and a lot of violations from all the agreements that were made,” she added.
Still, the anger on the right over McCarthy’s debt negotiation illustrates the bind he can’t escape: appeasing conservatives famously hostile to compromise, while also proving the GOP’s ability to govern alongside Biden. Both McCarthy and the president proved they could work together despite frequent frustrations, with the speaker even surprising his own party by praising Biden’s team on their negotiating skills. Regardless, the two proved they were able to secure a joint political win — or enough of one — to keep their bases happy.
But when it comes to House Republicans, the conservatives’ threats against McCarthy reopen wounds from the bruising battle over his speakership election. A handful of the 20 Republicans who sought to block him are now threatening to seek revenge over the debt deal.
“There are still some pretty deep divisions,” said senior Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.). “We’ve rocked along pretty well, got quite a bit accomplished in this Congress. But as I predicted months ago, we really don’t know the true character of this conference until you have your first heavy lift. And this is it.”
Some of that tension was exposed at Tuesday night’s roughly two-hour conference meeting, where dozens of members lined up to speak up about the deal. While attendees described a mostly united party, some McCarthy allies had warnings for their conservative colleagues. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the former Agriculture Committee chair, sought to remind Freedom Caucus members that their tactics with the 2013 farm bill had cost them $20 billion in fiscal cuts.
It’ll only be a few more months before Republicans will need to strike another deal with Democrats on a massive government spending bill. And until then, senior Republicans acknowledge there’s work to be done to rebuild trust that’s been lost between McCarthy, his allies and conservatives. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) is Exhibit A — he’d been a cheerleader of the GOP’s original debt bill but became furious with the bipartisan deal, encouraging “every Republican” to vote against it.
“I’m not going to lie, we have some relationship repair that needs to happen. We do,” said lead GOP negotiator Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), who was visibly frustrated by fellow Republicans who have criticized it as a bad deal.
Roy, when asked about efforts to persuade him to support the compromise, argued “no one was confused about my position. The only question is how to move forward.”
Graves and Roy, who were in touch on a near-daily basis during negotiations and even held joint press briefings, have spoken privately about their frustrations with each other. And the Louisiana Republican quipped that they’ve agreed that they will both need to sit down and talk “over several bottles of something” to hash things out further.
“There are some pretty raw feelings, I think, on both sides right now,” Graves said.
For now though, few Republicans are seriously worrying about any real threat to McCarthy’s speakership. Despite some saber-rattling, the GOP’s right flank isn’t united on pursuing the idea — and some in the conservative wing voiced disappointment that a small number of their colleagues would leap straight to threatening a no-confidence vote.
“The point was that this is a work in progress. They worked their butts off. And this is a start,” said Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), a Freedom Caucus member who likes the debt bill but says he was “inundated” by his constituents to oppose the bill. “And for the discussion to start being about vacate the chair? Come on.”
“We haven’t had a sit down and said, ‘Okay, what’s our strategy on the motion to vacate?’” added Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), another Freedom Caucus member who said the talk was premature. “But before we even get down there, there’s a lot more discussions that have to happen and they just haven’t happened yet.”
One senior House Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a push to oust McCarthy could have the opposite effect: “It’d be a good way to consolidate support around McCarthy,” the person said. “The rest of the conference would circle wagons.”
Jordain Carney contributed.
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