After nearly a week of far-right Republicans blocking Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid for Speaker, the California lawmaker continues to look for an escape hatch. Day after day, McCarthy and his allies have been negotiating with the defectors to end the humiliating deadlock.
The House adjourned on Thursday soon after McCarthy fell short in the chamber’s eleventh round of voting. Yet if the concessions he has made so far ultimately help him end the impasse, they stand to radically reshape the next Congress, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The concessions include changing the House rules to empower every lawmaker to call for a vote to oust the Speaker at any time; giving the House Freedom Caucus, of which most of the holdouts are members, four seats on the powerful House Rules Committee; and appointing some of the chamber’s most conservative lawmakers as chairs to a handful of subcommittees. The Washington Post also reported that McCarthy agreed to allow floor votes on a border security bill and a measure that would institute term limits on House members.
The moves constitute a significant overture to McCarthy’s adversaries, which would give them greater leverage to be disruptive during the next congressional term.
But while those offers haven’t ended the historic standoff, they could substantially affect the mechanics of the House over the next two years and create the conditions for perpetual dysfunction in the chamber if they are eventually adopted.
House members have always been able to make a so-called motion to vacate, which leads to a snap vote on whether the Speaker should be replaced. But as Speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi weakened the rule to allow only a party leader or a majority vote by one party to force such a vote. By returning to the old system where any member can make a motion to vacate, it will make it easier for McCarthy critics to throw a wrench into his ability to lead a governing coalition. The change, however, is more symbolic than anything else. There would still need to be the support of a majority of the House to ultimately remove the Speaker. And as the last week has shown, most of the chamber’s GOP conference is with McCarthy and haven’t been shy to express their disdain for the 20 Republicans who are standing in his way. In other words, even a handful of dissidents would still have a hard time pulling off a leadership coup.
While the motion to vacate has drawn the most attention, McCarthy’s concession related to the House Rules Committee may be the most impactful. Allowing more members of the House Freedom Caucus, most of whom seem to relish chaos and causing a spectacle, on the pivotal committee that determines which bills can make it to the House floor could make a concrete difference on legislators’ ability to perform basic functions.
“Those concessions are pretty huge,” Joshua Huder, a congressional expert with Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, tells TIME. “You’re talking about some very real limitations on what McCarthy can do to manage the House floor.”
This might have the largest repercussions on the appropriations process, particularly when it comes time to fund the government later this year. Last month, Congress passed a $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package that will keep the government’s doors open through September.
The Freedom Caucus members were among the most adamant in their opposition to the spending package, and have brought it up repeatedly this week. They say McCarthy is too willing to work with Democrats to contribute, in their view, to a bloated federal government. McCarthy tried to push back on that impression by voting against the omnibus, but it seemed to his detractors as too little, too late.
“Nothing can go to the floor without a rule,” a congressional Democratic aide tells TIME. “And the Rules Committee figures out how long debate is, whether you can add amendments. Giving Freedom Caucus members the ability to do that means they can send things to the floor, or block amendments from coming to the floor.”
“It really was a big win for them,” the aide adds.
Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina downplayed the significance of these changes, saying it was always going to be a tricky balancing act to pass spending bills when the GOP caucus had a slim 222-212 majority, with one vacancy. “That was going to be difficult anyway,” he tells TIME. “I think that we will be able to work together. I have faith in Kevin McCarthy that he could handle this.”
The House Freedom Caucus has long been a thorn in the side of House Republican leadership. In 2015, then-Speaker John Boehner resigned under pressure from the more conservative wing of his caucus. In his memoir, Boehner referred to the one of the group’s spiritual ringleaders, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, as a “political terrorist.” Jordan, for his part, has supported McCarthy for Speaker, even as many of his closest allies have done everything to torpedo McCarthy’s bid.
Yet even after these concessions were made, McCarthy made no progress on moving the holdouts. Their intransigence has mystified some of their own colleagues who can’t get their minds around what the defectors really want. “There’s no clarity,” says Rep. Glenn Thompson, a Pennsylvania Republican.
“A lot of this is driven by a desire to humiliate McCarthy,” a senior Democratic Congressional aide tells TIME. “They view him as a symbol of things they hate. They want to humiliate him and they don’t want to elevate him. In the end, politicians are transactional creatures and they want to cut deals and get something and be liked. But I think there’s a big element of sadism here.”
The standstill has led to speculation on Capitol Hill over a range of “nuclear options,” including adopting a resolution to allow the Speaker to be elected by a plurality instead of a majority. Such a maneuver could potentially result in the Democratic leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, being elected Speaker, though that is an unlikely scenario. Republican Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska has proposed working with Democrats on elevating a moderate as a consensus choice, but that also does not appear to be in the offing.
Democratic sources, however, said that may be the only way to block one of McCarthy’s other concessions to the defectors: effectively gutting the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent panel that was preparing to investigate lawmakers who participated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Without Democratic House members getting directly involved in the outcome, most of the concessions McCarthy has agreed to are likely to be part of the rules package that the Republican-controlled chamber will approve after a Speaker is elected.
Be that as it may, Republicans are still trying to find a resolution to the imbroglio, a process that may include McCarthy giving up even more leverage to the most disruptive members of his caucus. “In order to gain power,” the Democratic Congressional aide says, “he keeps relinquishing the power that being Speaker is supposed to give him.”