McCarthy concessions to win Speakership raise eyebrows


(The Hill) – Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was forced to give in to a series of demands from detractors to win the support necessary to win the Speaker’s gavel after a historic week of failed ballots. While most GOP lawmakers are downplaying the significance of McCarthy’s concessions, the changes — which are designed to empower rank-and-file members at the expense of his own leadership authority — are also raising concerns that they could cripple the governing functions of the lower chamber.

One change in particular — which empowers a single lawmaker to launch the process of ousting the Speaker — is giving heartburn to lawmakers in both parties, who fear a hardline group of conservatives will use it repeatedly to browbeat McCarthy into keeping crucial must-pass bills off the floor.

The result, they say, will be a heightened risk of shuttering the government, defaulting on federal debts and grinding the business of the House to a screeching halt. “I think it’s a terrible decision,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.). “If one person can push a motion to vacate, we’ll do this again. How would you like to do this every week?” he said, referring to the internal battle that delayed McCarthy’s speakership victory for days. “I think that’s the future with a few of these individuals. … It weakens the speaker, and it strengthens the smallest caucus of all the caucuses.”

Some of McCarthy’s conservative critics have also demanded that any move to raise the nation’s debt ceiling — which allows the government to borrow money to pay its obligations — must be accompanied by cuts in the nation’s entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare. And a provision of the new House rules package requires a separate vote on hiking the debt limit. “It’s safe to say that we believe there ought to be specific, concrete limits on spending attached to a debt ceiling increase,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) told reporters in the Capitol on Thursday. “There will be no clean debt ceiling increase, that’s for sure,” echoed Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), another McCarthy opponent who was brought around to support him by the new concessions. 

That demand has prompted howls from Democrats, who want to protect the nation’s safety net programs and fear the heightened risk of a federal default if McCarthy yields to the conservatives’ wishes. “If they do the debt ceiling, we’re screwed,” a Democratic lawmaker said Friday.

Another major concern for centrist Republicans throughout the week’s marathon negotiations was the conservatives’ push to win more subcommittee gavels for themselves — an idea that infuriated those already in line for those seats. Bacon had called it “a non-starter,” particularly among the more moderate Republicans who have worked their way up the ladder into those seats. “If you’re talking about chairmanships and things like that, they’re gonna have to still earn it,” Bacon said. “I call it affirmative action for [the] smallest of the caucuses to put them in leadership roles when they’ve not earned it. We believe in a merit-based system on the GOP side.”

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), who has served in the House since 2013, also highlighted the “seniority process” for chairmanships. “Everybody has to work their way through the seniority process and earn positions on both committees and gavels and things of that nature,” she said.

The other changes adopted by Republicans as they open the 118th Congress are less controversial. They include a guaranteed floor vote to establish term limits for all House lawmakers; an open amendment process, providing rank-and-file lawmakers with more power to alter legislation; adoption of the so-called Holman rule, which grants Congress new powers over federal agencies; and a 72-hour rule — requiring a full three days to allow lawmakers to read bills before they hit the floor. 

Those changes have all been adopted at points in the past. And most Republicans are brushing aside any narrative that McCarthy gave too much up for the gavel in return. “No, I don’t think so,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who emerged as one of McCarthy’s most vocal advocates amid the Speaker’s race. “These concessions have been agreed to by our conference, and ultimately I believe it’s going to lead to a more people-driven legislative process,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). “It’s about restoring more power and decision making to the members.” 

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) downplayed concerns about even the single-member motion to vacate, saying there is little difference between one-person or five-person threshold, which was the minimum in the initial rules package. “You already agreed to five, what’s the difference between five and one?” he said. “It’s an accountability issue. So let’s just all work as a team and it’ll be fine.”

McCarthy himself is also defending the ninth-inning negotiation, assuring that the key concession will not make him a “weaker Speaker.” “It would only be a weaker Speaker if I was afraid of it,” he told reporters Thursday night. “I won’t be a weaker Speaker.” “That’s the way it’s always been except for the last Speaker. I think I’m very fine with that,” he added.

But Democrats are sounding the alarm, warning that the California Republican’s offer to his right flank diminishes his authority at the detriment of stable governance. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had eliminated the single-person vacate rule as Speaker in the previous two Congresses, called its reinstatement “ridiculous.” 

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the previous majority leader, said the deal gives too much power to the Republicans’ far-right fringe. “I think he gave away much more than I wish he’d given,” Hoyer said. “I think it does give to a small, willful faction of his caucus, a negative faction of his caucus, a faction of his caucus that has been almost uniformly obstructionist, more authority than they ought to have.”

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