Analysis | Has McCarthy given up his House speaker powers before he’s even won?

After three days of political futility, Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the House speaker’s gavel gained steam late Thursday — but only because his emissaries have given into demands that would jeopardize his chances at having any lasting legacy in the once powerful post.

The California Republican offered up a set of obscure-but-critical changes to House rules that could put him back on a path to eventually win. But those changes could lead to McCarthy’s relatively speedy exit from speaker’s suites with little to show for his tenure, further destabilizing an institution that is already generously described as dysfunctional.

Officially, his allies believe that these new rules are stuff that can be navigated and appeal to conservatives broadly, not just the 21 GOP defectors who have embarrassed McCarthy this week and forced a new post-Civil War record of 11 rounds of voting without electing a House speaker.

“I get it, in some instances, getting a deal is just a bridge too far, but that’s not really where we’re at,” said Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, a leader of the largest establishment Republican caucus, rejecting the idea that McCarthy gave in to hostage takers. “We want a more open, transparent and accountable House, and we’re gonna get there.”

Veterans of the recent GOP civil wars privately fear that Republicans have set themselves up for failure, while senior Democrats worry that the damage will outlast McCarthy and continue for any of his Republican successors.

“Kevin McCarthy has nothing left to give away. He’s given away everything including his dignity, and it’s still not enough for these guys,” said Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee for the last five years. “And the problem is, if it’s not McCarthy or whoever else they decide to put up there, he is now locked into these crazy rules changes and is going to have to follow all these nutty demands.”

And, of course, these latest offerings have not won over all of the GOP holdouts. Some of the far-right radicals simply view this quintessential child of the Republican establishment — a member of leadership for 14 years, former state legislative leader, longtime congressional staffer, onetime leader of the College Republicans — as the sickness that is the target for these renegades.

“I’m absolutely a no. You don’t ever have to ask me again if I’m a no. You never have to ask me again if I’m a no on Kevin McCarthy. I will never vote for Kevin McCarthy,” Bob Good of Virginia, one of the hard-liners, said Thursday morning exiting a meeting just off the Capitol campus.

But a significant bloc of the 21 GOP opponents are hard-right conservatives who are willing to vote for McCarthy if he gives in to enough of their demands.

“This is, for me, has always been about what it’s going to take to make this place work, to let us to be able to represent the people well in that process,” Mike Cloud of Texas, who has opposed McCarthy in every round of voting, said after meeting with the GOP leader.

Cloud, along with a group led by fellow Texan Chip Roy, have won concessions that will transfer the speaker’s office from someone often described as the most powerful of the last 60 years, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, to someone who will by dictate be the weakest speaker in memory.

These archconservatives have won promises to secure posts on the powerful Rules Committee; to gain influential posts on other committees; to have wide-open debate with unlimited amendments on government funding bills; and to give just a single member the power to compel a vote to expel McCarthy as speaker if they decide he hasn’t lived up to his word.

The Rules Committee is often called the Speaker’s Committee because its appointees all come from the speaker and it is stacked — nine members of the majority to four from the minority traditionally — so that the panel can set the lineup for debating legislation however the speaker decides.

Roy and his allies have pushed for four appointees to come from the far right, usually associated with the House Freedom Caucus. Such a dynamic would leave the hard right close to being the margin of difference, especially if Democrats are given an additional seat or two as the panel expands.

Traditionally, every member of the majority votes exactly as the speaker intends on the Rules Committee, unless there is an extraordinary circumstance related to a lawmaker’s personal beliefs or something central to their district.

By custom, the House speaker simply never loses a vote in the rules committee — but McCarthy’s antagonists are trying to make that a possibility.

The hard-liners have a point about how the government funding bills are supposed to be debated under “open rules,” in which a marathon session of amendment votes can be held. This process effectively ended more than six years ago as Democrats, then in the minority, flustered Republicans by repeatedly offering amendments regarding Confederate symbols at federal institutions.

Unable to defeat those amendments, Republicans just shut down the open-rule process and Pelosi, taking power four years ago, happily continued to rule with that iron fist when it came to amendments.

Longtime observers expect a similar deadlock to happen if McCarthy, or whoever claims the gavel, tries to open up the amendment process. And it will basically shut down the process for funding federal agencies, raising the risk of government shutdowns or forcing them to continue operating on the previous year’s budget.

“The deal is, whoever the speaker is has to be able to govern, has to be able to move a legislative agenda forward,” McGovern said. “What these guys are trying to do is they’re trying to make it impossible for the speaker to do anything without their approval.”

The ability to force votes to eject the speaker, known internally as “the motion to vacate the chair,” has been the bane of existence for the two most recent Republican speakers, John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (Wis.).

When it comes to voting for speaker, the minority party will almost never offer any help to the majority. So during speaker elections, or a motion to eject the speaker, the majority has to produce a majority just from its side of the aisle.

That can be difficult when a few dozen ideologues decide it’s time to boot the speaker, as happened in 2015 when Freedom Caucus members wanted to force a vote against Boehner. He resigned rather than face the divisive vote.

By giving in to these demands, the next GOP speaker will have a hard time passing legislation unless the farthest right element of their caucus supports the measure.

And should McCarthy come calling on Democrats for some big votes, they are prepared to leverage his need for their assistance to win concessions of their own.

“I’m not a cheap date.”


Such efforts will only infuriate the hard right and raise the possibility they will simply pull the trigger on the motion to toss him aside.

But this is the devil’s bargain McCarthy is trying to cut a deal with a group that has held him hostage for weeks now.

“We’re tired of the same old-same old. Do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. That doesn’t work,” said Paul A. Gosar of Arizona, leaving the Thursday meeting of McCarthy antagonists.

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