The Freedom Caucus Has Taken the House Hostage. Their Demand? Kevin McCarthy’s Spine

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This is the week House Speaker Kevin McCarthy realized he was pinned down. A handful of his fellow Republicans had effectively taken the House floor hostage and were not quite ready to have a real negotiation. They wanted time to air their grievances. Rather than continue an active standoff for a third day or a worse outcome, the still-learning-the-job Speaker decided to pack it in for now, regroup in private over the now-unexpectedly-long weekend, and try to find detente with the far-right faction of his party before the lawmakers return next week.

“There’s a little chaos going on,” McCarthy acknowledged to reporters Wednesday evening, wrapping up a second day of stalemate. The whispers of a coming vote to boot the Speaker were spreading beyond the dozen or so Republicans who had been talking about it for weeks, the same group who were now openly defying McCarthy by holding up—and this is where it becomes Very Washington—legislation that they themselves actually support.

That’s right. The Republican-led House isn’t even stuck in stasis over bills that run afoul of GOP orthodoxy or policy. The stalled measures would block the feds from banning gas stoves and give Congress veto power over any regulations with consumer costs of over $100 million. Democratic opposition in the Senate and the White House all but dooms these press releases masquerading as legislation. But the stunt is sufficient to stop the House in its tracks, embarrass McCarthy, and embolden other conservatives uneasy with the deal the Speaker recently struck with President Joe Biden over the debt ceiling. The substance actually doesn’t matter here. It’s the theater.

For the moment, McCarthy has dodged a noose of his own knitting. One of the conditions he agreed to way back in January in order to secure enough votes to become Speaker—on the 15th ballot, no less—was an agreement that any one of his members could, at any time, demand a vote of no confidence. That Motion-to-Vacate proffer left McCarthy starting his new gig as one of the weakest Speakers in decades, and his right flank knew it. They also allegedly secured assurances that any deal on the debt ceiling would include cuts; they now say they were betrayed in the backroom deal McCarthy quarterbacked because the increase in the nation’s borrowing cap didn’t come with sufficiently corresponding spending cuts.

Until Tuesday, the grumblings from members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus were just that: background noise from rabble rousers who know just enough to gum up the system but aren’t usually ones to bring about a total meltdown. But when it came time for a procedural vote Tuesday, it quickly became clear that Republicans didn’t have the votes. Eleven Republicans joined with unified Democrats to tank the rules packages that needed to pass in order to set up the schedule for debate on the pro-gas stoves and anti-federal regs measures, and the betrayal left the GOP Leadership team shocked and shaken. (House Majority Leader Steve Scalise also voted against the package so that, under the standing House rules, he could bring it back to the floor at another time.)

It was the first time a rules package had failed on the House floor since 2002 and a shocking rejection of McCarthy that sent the chamber into chaos.

The Speaker needs 218 votes to move anything forward when the House is full, and McCarthy has 222 Republicans. With almost zero room for error, his vote-counting operation must always be on high alert for parochial defections—and it clearly was not. Complicating matters even more, McCarthy is telling allies that he doesn’t even know what his troublemakers want because they haven’t been able to tell him specifics.

After an hour-long meeting Tuesday, it became clear that the far-right flank was doing more than blowing off some steam. As Wednesday came and went without any action on the floor, McCarthy realized he was boxed in, and the failure of those messaging bills were the least of his worries. Although the rebels are stopping short of kicking McCarthy to the curb, they are putting him on notice. “He’s got to be forced into monogamy with us as his coalition partner or [Democratic Leader] Hakeem [Jeffries],” said Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. “And if Hakeem is his coalition partner, then we’re not going to play out the failure theater on stuff like we saw put on the floor this week.”

The malcontents have said they’re well past the point of wrangling specific promises out of McCarthy. They believed they had sufficient guarantees back in January when they gave McCarthy the job he’s been chasing since his first days in Washington. Words can be broken, and the hard-right lawmakers now need to feel they have a more sincere partnership with the Speaker—and his fear. The biggest obstacle to the firebrands is a serious one, though: no one is waiting in the wings to step up should McCarthy appear mortally wounded.

McCarthy’s next moves will be telling. On Tuesday, he tried to tamp down expectations that the House would take up an additional chunk of spending for Ukraine that Senate Republicans are promoting. That is likely a nonstarter unless McCarthy can win back the trust of his political captors. If his right flank will park even their favored pieces of the agenda—even one as far-fetched as Biden banning gas stoves—McCarthy stands no chance at moving an agenda with real needs. That includes the 12 appropriations bills Congress needs to pass in order to fund the government. Tackling those measures are a perennial challenge that got much more complicated under limits put in place as part of the debt-ceiling deal.

“How can you govern if you can’t pass a rule?” asked Rep. Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican who joined the revolt against McCarthy this week.

Maybe that’s the entire point. Washington has faced divided government before, but the extent to which the House Speaker is now beholden to a far-right flank is new. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter who actually holds the gavel. The real power in the House rests with the handful of lawmakers who now feel plenty aggrieved over broken rules that, frankly, have never been made public. They have now shown they will tank even low-stakes PR stunts to get their leadership’s attention, even if it dooms a bill they actually like. For them, roughing up a Speaker to remind him that he needs them on even the most routine moves is a much more appealing prize, and it’s one they can get almost any time on a lark.

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