Firebrand appointments to Rules panel may haunt McCarthy

Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) decision to promote conservative firebrands to the House Rules Committee has given some of his leading GOP detractors enormous new powers to dictate the party’s legislative agenda — and may cause headaches for Republican leaders down the line.

The Rules Committee, a relatively obscure panel, is also among the most powerful, getting the last crack at most legislation before it’s sent to the House floor. That means it dictates not only the content of those proposals, but also the guidelines under which they’re debated.

Historically, Speakers of both parties have stacked the committee with close allies to ensure maximum control over how, what and when bills come to the floor. But this year is different.

Faced with a revolt from conservatives in his own conference, McCarthy promised them new spots on the Rules panel — one of the many concessions he made to win their support for his Speakership. And he made good on that offer on Monday when he named three conservatives — Reps. Chip Roy (R-Texas), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) — to the committee.

Roy and Massie, in particular, have been frequently at odds with their own leadership on issues of budgets and spending. And all three lawmakers have been highly critical of the top-down legislative approach adopted by leaders of both parties in years past. They’re vowing to support only those rules that leave bills open to greater debate and additional amendments.

Their numbers are significant. On the 13-member Rules panel, the three agitators can join forces to block most any legislation from leaving the committee. It’s a dynamic that could pose an enormous barrier for GOP leaders hoping to fast-track any must-pass bills with their new majority, and it’s creating concerns from lawmakers in both parties that the trio will dictate the House agenda for the next two years. 

“It’s not some insider baseball thing. These three people basically now have veto power on any bill that comes to the floor of the House,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said Monday night in an interview with MSNBC.

Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), the top Democrat on the panel, was even more terse: “Yikes,” he wrote on Twitter in response to the appointments.

McCarthy did place a number of allies on the powerful panel, including Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the chairman, and Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), who was tapped to serve as chief deputy whip in the new Congress. But with nine Republicans and four Democrats sitting on the committee, three GOP defections could stop a bill from heading to the floor, seven votes to six.

Conservatives won an early victory this week: GOP leaders are vowing to bring legislation to the floor under a modified-open rule for the first time in seven years, which will allow members to offer amendments on the floor.

It remains unclear how aggressive those three conservatives, however, will be with their increased muscle on the Rules panel.

In the immediate wake of November’s midterm elections, when it was clear a red wave had not come to fruition, Massie hinted he would take advantage of the GOP’s slim majority, telling reporters, “I can decide whether a bill passes or not.”

Since he was named to the Rules panel, however, Massie is toning down such threats, saying he has no plans to wield his newfound power in such a fashion.

“It’s not my goal to be on the Rules Committee and to stop everything that I don’t like,” the Kentucky Republican told The Dispatch. “Even though when you look at it numerically, the composition of the committee, ‘Oh my gosh, three people could stop anything.’ That’s not my goal. For me, I don’t think it would be productive or sustainable for me to do that every week.”

“It doesn’t always work out for the canary,” he recalled telling McCarthy and Cole during a discussion about him potentially joining the panel, describing the triumvirate as canaries in a coal mine.

“But that’s what we are, and I think we just have to do our best to represent the will of the conference while sticking to the rules that we’ve established for ourselves,” he added.

The new Rules roster follows weeks of haggling between McCarthy and GOP critics as he sought the Speaker’s gavel after the midterms. 

McCarthy agreed to seat three hard-line conservatives on the Rules Committee as part of a handshake deal he struck with his holdouts. Fourteen defectors ultimately flipped to support the California Republican after that deal emerged.

McCarthy is now paying up, following through on his promise and, a step further, elevating two of his conservative opponents to the Rules Committee. Norman and Roy — members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus — voted against McCarthy for the majority of the Speaker spectacle, moving to his column only after their demands were secured. Roy played a central role in the closed-door discussions.

The Texas Republican told Axios on Monday that he “didn’t ask” for the appointment, adding “but you can’t push for change [and] not saddle up if asked.”

While the picks follow through on McCarthy’s key promise, they could worsen the mathematical headache he is likely to face on future votes.

Republicans can afford to lose only four votes when passing legislation, if Democrats are united in opposition, meaning the GOP conference will have to remain closely knit to secure victories on the floor. That number will drop to three for the next few weeks as Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) recovers in Florida from an injury sustained in a fall.

McCarthy, for his part, has remained confident he can keep his conference united and the House in order, even as he’s ceded some of the powers to keep the chamber in check. 

“We’ve worked out how to work together,” McCarthy told reporters shortly after winning the gavel.

If history is any gauge, he has his work cut out. 

In 2011, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) took control of the House with a similar pledge to do away with year-end omnibus spending bills and create a more inclusive lower chamber. Just weeks after taking the gavel, he opened up the floor for a free-wheeling budget debate designed to appease the Tea Party freshmen who had given Republicans their new majority. Lawmakers in both parties were only happy to oblige, proposing more than 580 amendments and extending the floor fight over five chaotic days in what Boehner would later equate to “diving off the 50-foot diving board your first dive.”

The resulting battle with the Obama administration yielded some victories for Republicans, who secured cost-cutting concessions from the Democratic White House. But Boehner fell short of his goal to establish regular order across the spending debate, and would ultimately be forced to endorse a series of year-end omnibus packages over the course of his tenure. 

Boehner’s successor, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), also took the gavel promising the House would be more “open,” “deliberative” and “participatory.” 

Within two years, the GOP Rules Committee under Ryan’s guidance would break the record for the most closed rules in a single congressional session.

Tags Chip Roy House Republicans Kevin McCarthy Kevin McCarthy Thomas Massie Tom Cole
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