Speaker Kevin McCarthy vexed by conservative revolt as House returns to Washington

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The U.S. House of Representatives is set to return to Washington on Monday with no clear resolution to the standoff between conservative hardliners and Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Last week, 11 GOP lawmakers allied with the House Freedom Caucus paralyzed the chamber by blocking a slew of Republican-led bills. Mr. McCarthy was forced to send lawmakers home early on Wednesday after the blockade showed no signs of faltering. 

“We’ve got a small majority. There’s a little chaos going,” said Mr. McCarthy, California Republican. “We’re just going to work through the agenda and get everything done.”

Mr. McCarthy hopes that time away has mellowed tensions. House leaders have spent much of the weekend working the phones in an effort to persuade conservative hardliners to drop their blockade. 

As part of that effort, Mr. McCarthy has agreed to bring to the floor this week legislation to roll back a new rule by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on pistol braces. 

The legislation and its author, Rep. Andrew Clyde, were part of the reason why conservative hardliners initially revolted against Mr. McCarthy. Last week, Mr. Clyde publicly claimed that GOP leaders had threatened to kill his legislation if he voted against Mr. McCarthy’s deal with President Biden to raise the debt limit past the 2024 elections. 

SEE ALSO: GOP agenda’s momentum threatened by Republican hard-liners upset with McCarthy-Biden debt limit deal

“I was threatened that if I voted against the closed rule to the debt ceiling agreement, it would be very difficult to bring my pistol stabilizing brace bill to the House floor for a vote,” said Mr. Clyde, Georgia Republican. 

The claim stirred to action the Freedom Caucus, which was already fuming that Mr. McCarthy had used Democratic votes to pass the debt limit deal over their opposition. 

“We’re not going to live in the era of the imperial speaker anymore,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a Freedom Caucus ally who voted to block the bills. “We had one of our members threatened.”

While hardliners see bringing Mr. Clyde’s legislation to the floor as a step forward, they also say that Mr. McCarthy has a long way to go to earn back their trust. Mr. Gaetz said specifically they want Mr. McCarthy to rule out relying on Democrats to overcome GOP opposition in the future.

“We’re going to force him into a monogamous relationship with one or the other,” Mr. Gaetz said on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast. “What we’re not gonna do is hang out with him for five months and then watch him go jump in the back seat with [House Democratic leader] Hakeem Jeffries and sell the nation out.”

Given the narrow House majority, Mr. McCarthy can only lose four GOP lawmakers on any vote before having to rely on Democrats. That was what happened when the speaker reached his debt-limit deal with President Biden. 

The agreement, which raises the debt ceiling until January 2025, passed because of a coalition of House Republicans and Democrats. Overall, 71 Republicans bucked Mr. McCarthy and voted against the legislation. 

Hardliners are worried Mr. McCarthy will use the tactic to steamroll their opposition in the future. 

“I continued to be concerned because he hasn’t repudiated that coalition,” said Mr. Biggs, Arizona Republican. “My guess is he’s prepared to do that again on the next three must-pass bills, [the] Farm Bill, [the defense bill], and the budget.”

The pressure is putting Mr. McCarthy in an awkward position. 

The Freedom Caucus nearly tanked Mr. McCarthy’s speakership bid this year. In exchange for allowing Mr. McCarthy’s ascension, the group pushed through a rules package that decentralized the power of congressional leadership.

The crux of the overhaul rests on a provision letting any lawmaker force a vote on retaining the speaker. Although hardliners have not expressly committed to ousting Mr. McCarthy, the threat still underlines his standoff with the Freedom Caucus. 

“It’s a horrible position to be in,” said a senior GOP leadership aide. “On the one hand, they don’t have the votes to coronate someone else as speaker. But [Mr. McCarthy] doesn’t have the votes to ignore them either.” 

Mollifying the Freedom Caucus with a pledge to only move legislation with GOP votes would be trading one standoff for another. 

Democrats hold a narrow 51-49 seat majority in the Senate and would be unlikely to pass wholesale conservative legislation from the House. Even if they did, Mr. Biden could exercise his veto power to scrap conservative priorities from becoming law. 

Nowhere is the problem more likely to be clear than in the upcoming appropriations process. Congress must pass a funding bill by Sept. 30 or risk a government shutdown. 

Freedom Caucus hardliners are pushing Mr. McCarthy to agree to a $130 billion spending cut. The figure stands in direct contradiction to the debt-limit agreement Mr. McCarthy struck with the White House, which keeps domestic spending flat while hiking the defense budget by more than 3%. 

Mr. McCarthy has hinted that the agreement to keep spending flat is merely a ceiling, not a floor. 

“Whenever you put a cap, that’s the ceiling,” the speaker said. “We can always spend less. I’ve always advocated for spending less.”

Democrats disagree. Mr. Jeffries of New York, the House minority leader, gave a simple “no” when asked if Democrats would accept a budget below the spending level agreed in the debt limit deal.

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