McCarthy experiences rollercoaster of highs and lows in first weeks as Speaker

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) is experiencing the highs and lows of his new position, underscoring how his tenure leading a fractious House GOP majority is likely to be something of a rollercoaster.

McCarthy is managing fiery personalities in his own conference after a turbulent one-week battle to be elected Speaker. 

He’s squeaked out a number of wins, showing the GOP can divide House Democrats with the right messaging bills. Allies also see opportunities for bipartisan agreement on issues such as China policy. 

At the same time, internal Republican disagreement that is derailing some of the leadership’s plans for bills forecasts the challenges ahead. With just a four-vote majority, McCarthy will face difficulties in getting his conference completely on board with on difficult policy measures. 

“Speaker McCarthy fully understands the challenges of leading a nearly split House with a fractured GOP caucus. He inherited these circumstances, he did not create them,” Republican strategist Rick Tyler told The Hill. “But I believe that he has, as he is already demonstrating, the political skill to lead the Republicans into an era of a sustained governing majority.”

The lows, so far, have been more dramatic than the highs. 

Most notably, hard-line conservatives forced McCarthy into a historic days-long Speaker election floor battle. After extensive negotiations between opponents and allies, including commitments on structural changes that allows any Republican to force a vote on his ouster, McCarthy secured the gavel.

Soon after, McCarthy ran into a challenge in getting enough votes to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee over past comments deemed antisemitic by members of both parties. 

Reps. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.), Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Ken Buck (R-Colo.) expressed misgivings about the tit-for-tat of removing members from committees as retribution for Democrats stripping Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) from panels in the last Congress. But after nonbinding language was added to address “due process” concerns, McCarthy swayed the members, and Republicans removed Omar. 

McCarthy has embraced Greene as a key ally, but observers think it could be hard for him to keep walking a tightrope of managing firebrands and those stoking controversy without condemning them.

As revelations about Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) continue to emerge, McCarthy has declined to call for his resignation, and said that Santos voluntarily stepped down from his committees after originally getting assignments. 

“To succeed, he has to constantly be communicating to and convincing the voters that his party has a better vision for America and is capable of governing. Over time, that will mean replacing the Marjorie Taylor-Greens and Matt Gaetz’ with more sane, rational competent representatives,” Tyler said.

House Republicans have passed several party-line messaging measures that have virtually no chance of getting through the Democratic-controlled Senate. Those included a bill to rescind a boost in IRS funding for enforcement and a bill to require health care providers to provide lifesaving care to any infant born alive after an attempted abortion.

But because of internal GOP disagreement, several pieces of legislation that Republicans had hoped to bring to the floor in the opening weeks of the session for a quick vote have stalled.

One of those is the Border Safety and Security Act, a bill that would allow the Homeland Security secretary to turn away migrants in order to achieve “operational control” at the border.

Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas), who represents a district on the U.S.-Mexico border, has warned that the bill could prevent legal asylum claims, and dubbed it “anti-immigrant.” Lead sponsor Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) says there has been “misinformation” about the bill.

Many of McCarthy’s wins have been structural and were promises the Speaker made in the runup to the midterms. 

The House GOP ended pandemic-era proxy voting, reopened buildings and the gallery to the public, and removed magnetometers around the House floor. The House held its first modified open amendment process in seven years, during which more than 140 amendments were considered on a bill limiting the president’s ability to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

China policy is another bright spot for McCarthy. 

Fulfilling the Speaker’s longtime goal, the House established a select committee on China with bipartisan support. The panel is likely to focus on not only international issues but also on domestic issues related to the influence of the Chinese Communist Party, such as Beijing’s purchase of agricultural lands in the U.S. It could also touch on human rights issues and “ideological warfare.”

And the House unanimously passed a resolution condemning China for flying a suspected spy balloon over the continental U.S., in a 419-0 recorded vote. The resolution was reportedly modified from an earlier idea to criticize President Biden for not shooting down the balloon faster.

“The House is the only place where we’ve moved bipartisan legislation. We just had a unanimous vote against the CCP of China on the balloon,” McCarthy said in a recent video posted to his Twitter account. 

He also noted that dozens of Democrats joined Republicans to pass resolutions disapproving of the District of Columbia passing measures to allow noncitizen residents to vote in local elections, and a bill that did away with a majority of mandatory minimum sentences in the D.C. criminal code.

“We’re going to differ in a lot of places, but there’s other places that I think we can find common ground,” McCarthy said.

Republicans also successfully split Democrats over a resolution to condemn socialism, with about half of the House Democratic Caucus joining Republicans to vote for the measure — a move that could come up in future campaign ads.

With a divided Washington, much of the House GOP’s focus will be on investigations of the Biden administration, big tech companies, intelligence agencies, and more — areas that will be led by committee chairs rather than McCarthy himself.

The next major legislative test for McCarthy in his first year as Speaker will be how he manages in trying to secure spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit. 

McCarthy has started conversations with President Biden on cutting spending alongside raising the debt limit. Those spending cuts were a promise made to some of his detractors during the Speakership fight, but the White House says it does not want to negotiate.

Tags house of representatives Kevin McCarthy Kevin McCarthy Speaker of the House

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