Briefing

What did Kevin McCarthy give away to finally be elected House speaker?

There was a price for McCarthy's victory, but nobody seems to know exactly what it was

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was elected House speaker in the wee hours of a Saturday morning, on the 15th ballot, after a week of humiliating deadlock and a final spasm of internecine Republican antagonism. There was a price for his victory, negotiated in secret with some of the 20 hard-right Republicans who had blocked his accession for five days and 14 votes. But nobody seems sure how much it cost McCarthy, his leadership, or the country. Here's what we know about what McCarthy traded away for his gavel, and what we don't know:

What concessions are we certain McCarthy made?

The ones written down in the House rules package Republicans passed on Jan. 9, for a start. "Even before they started hashing out handshake deals as McCarthy scrambled for votes to become speaker, conservatives had already racked up victories in the rules package," Politico reports. They had won a rule, for example, that requires bills to be focused on a single subject, trying to ward off giant omnibus funding legislation and bills that tuck unpopular provisions in must-pass packages.

Over the course of negotiations they also got a (non-enforceable) rule requiring 72 hours to read a bill before it comes up for a vote, various tools designed to force spending cuts and bar tax increases, expansion of a new select committee on the "weaponization" of the federal government's purview to include "ongoing criminal investigations," and — McCarthy's final cave — the return of a rule where any one member can force a vote to "vacate the chair," or oust the speaker. 

A lot of the concessions demanded by the larger, more ideological faction of McCarthy holdouts are pretty reasonable and "somewhat fair, frankly," pushing to give rank-and-file House members a real say in the legislation they pass, reporter Catie Edmundson says on the New York Times podcast The Daily. That last concession, the "one-member snap vote to oust him" giveaway, is the one that flips the critical 14 GOP holdouts, and it's their "accountability measure." 

"The important thing to remember here is that it's not so much that lawmakers think that McCarthy is going to lose, at least right away, one of these votes," Edmundson adds. "But it creates this threat that hangs over him and will hang over him for his entire speakership," constraining what he can do "because he knows that if he takes some sort of action that is going to anger the far right, they could move to try to force him out."

Which concessions aren't written down?

The core of the rules push by these 14 ideological conservatives, led by Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), "is a desire to shape a more inclusive legislative process that concentrates less power with leadership," Politico reports. But a lot of those concessions "aren't formally written down in the rules, such as allowing more amendments to be considered on the floor and more widely distributing committee positions." McCarthy's key concession here was agreeing to put three hard-right Republicans on the nine-member Rules Committee, the powerful gatekeepers of all legislation.

"There was a handshake agreement that we would carry forward with what we talked about," Roy told reporters. "We had general agreement that we need to have a reflection in the Rules Committee, you know, conservative representation." 

Giving three of the Rules Committee seats to the Freedom Caucus "will grant a handful of extremists outsize power in Congress," and it's "far more significant than the much-ballyhooed change allowing a single House member to essentially call a vote of no-confidence against the speaker," Jonathan Bernstein argues at Bloomberg Opinion. Empowering the rank-and-file is a worthy goal, "but what's actually happening is that the new House will be as centralized as before; the only difference will be that instead of the speaker and party leadership running things, it will be the speaker and one small, hostile group" that's "responsible to themselves and their allies."

What concessions are still secret or hazy?

You don't know what you don't know. But the House is abuzz about a "secret three-page addendum" in which, according to Punchbowl News, McCarthy and his allies agreed to the three Rules Committee seats, slashing funding back to fiscal 2022 levels, a no-blink debt-ceiling collision strategy to force spending cuts, and coveted committee assignments for the McCarthy holdouts who flipped to yes, among other giveaways. 

"It's the three-page document everyone in Washington is talking about — except it may not even exist," Politico reports. McCarthy and his allies say there were "no back-room promises," at least not in writing.

"There's not a side deal to anything," McCarthy told reporters Jan. 12. But some House Republicans say they have seen the document, and things have gotten more complicated "as GOP leadership outlined the concessions that it prefers to interpret as agreements and as some House Republicans open up about what they got from last week's frenetic talks."

Some of the 20 Freedom Caucus members who blocked McCarthy have gotten choice committee assignments, though National Republican Campaign Committee chair Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) said he's seen the document and there are "no names, just representation." Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), a McCarthy holdout who got a spot on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, told Politico: "There's no secret rules addendum. There's just an agreement."

Other House Republicans are just cagey. "I'm not at liberty to discuss whether I've seen it or not," Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) told Axios. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the McCarthy ally who chairs the Rules Committee, told reporters he's "sure it exists, because I read about it from you guys all the time."

"There's all these people talking about a document that doesn't exist," Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) told Politico, but House Republicans are all still jockeying to find out what's inside it because "you've got members who don't believe other members because they read something. It's about trust. You either trust people or you don't."

The biggest concern for House Republicans (and many Democrats) in this last batch of rumored concessions is McCarthy's reputed commitment to slash federal spending by $130 billion without cutting defense spending, which is a near impossibility math-wise and a nonstarter in the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House. 

How do other Republicans feel about these purported side deals?

Some of them are not thrilled, especially the ones in the mainstream wing of the GOP. Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas), the only House Republican to vote against the rules package, told Fox News he doesn't "want to see us every two months be in lockdown," or whenever Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) gets mad at McCarthy. "Operating in a vacuum doesn't feel good," one House Republican told CNN. "We've been loyal and it's a slap in the face." 

"Some sort of deal was hashed out for the majority of the 20 to vote for McCarthy for speaker, but this deal was crafted in private, behind closed doors," Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) told her constituents in a Jan. 9 letter. "We can't think of anything more 'swampy' than a member of Congress who tells the American people they're holding up the speaker vote because they're 'fighting' the 'swamp' only to broker some back-room deal, hidden away from the American people."

Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.) says he's not sure he wants to see the rumored deal sheet: "Do you really want to see how the sausage is made?" he asked Axios. "I'm not sure."

What are Democrats saying?

Some Democrats are singing from Mace's hymnal. The "American people will be held captive over the next two years to the extreme MAGA Republican agenda," Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told NBC's Meet the PressRep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, said, "I'm concerned by the back-room deals that Speaker McCarthy made with the Freedom Caucus in exchange for their votes."

But for other Democrats, mostly on the progressive left, McCarthy's concessions are permissions to "wreak havoc" on him and his new House majority, "and they're eager to mess with him," Politico reports. Any one House member can trigger a recall vote on McCarthy, and "whenever we want to cause complete chaos, we'll do that," Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) said. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) suggested it would be irresponsible to ignore this gift horse, and others, from her ideological opposites. "All of these procedural mechanisms here are merely tools, and so it's about when it's appropriate to reach for a certain tool," she said. "It's really a matter of when it may be appropriate."

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