WASHINGTON — Chaos? In the House of Representatives?
Republican Kevin McCarthy wrapped his first full week as House speaker in the most outwardly orderly way, with hardly a hint of the chaotic, rebellious fight it took for the Republicans to arrive here, having barely installed him as the leader with the gavel.
The House Republicans marched through the early days of the session like a spunky new business — in by noon, out by dinnertime, the lawmakers rapid-fire voting without much public drama in between. They approved their House rules and sent six Republican bills quickly to passage, including one to gut funding for the Internal Revenue Service.
The Republican committee chairmen were named, members were appointed to the panels and the Oversight committee launched its first requests for financial documents as it probes President Joe Biden and his family.
And when House Republicans met for the first time behind closed doors after the rowdy public spectacle that broke history records and almost came to fistfights to elect McCarthy as speaker, it was a “lovefest,” as one Republican lawmaker put it.
“That’s just the first five days, and we’re just getting started,” McCarthy said Thursday at his first press conference as speaker.
But the semblance of House GOP unity is all but certain to be temporary, a momentary reprieve after the grudging, grueling effort by Republicans to seize the majority from Democrats and elect the embattled McCarthy as the new speaker.
The daunting political math confronting McCarthy remains the same: With a 222-seat majority, he can only lose a few detractors on any issue unless he reaches across the aisle for help and backing from Democrats for the 218 votes typically needed to pass legislation.
While the first bills the House Republicans easily approved were essentially GOP favorites, designed to unite their side of the aisle and even pull in some Democratic support, the next legislative lifts are expected to be more vigorous and politically risky.
McCarthy has made a deal with conservatives that the next government funding bill will be held to fiscal 2022 levels, which means a substantial 8% cut of discretionary accounts — or more if the defense budget is spared.
“We’ve got to change the way we are spending money,” McCarthy said Thursday.
Even more, Congress will be asked this summer to raise the federal debt ceiling to allow more borrowing to pay off the government’s current bills, always a difficult vote for lawmakers and one that the Treasury Department says is coming sooner than expected.
In refusing to allow the federal government to take on more debt unless changes are made to federal spending, House Republicans are heading for a risky showdown that echoes the debt ceiling debate of 2011. That was a months-long political drama that resulted in a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating for the first time in modern memory after the newly-elected tea party class of House Republicans demanded federal spending cuts.
“Come on. Is this how House Republicans are starting the new term: cutting taxes for billionaires, raising taxes for working families, and making inflation worse?” Biden said Thursday in remarks near the White House.
“Well, let me be clear: If any of those bills make it to my desk, I will veto them,” he said. “I’m ready to work with Republicans, but not this kind of stuff.”
Downtown, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Suzanne Clark said in remarks Thursday that there is “almost a level of despair” among the business community about government gridlock and the inability to solve big issues such as the shortage of workers and immigration reform.
In the Senate, where Democrats still hold a slim 51-seat majority, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed to hold the line as “a firewall to this extreme MAGA Republican agenda,” a reference to former President Donald Trump’s Make American Great Again slogan.
It was Trump’s 11th hour push for McCarthy as voting was underway late last week that both men, who are on-again-off-again allies, said was responsible for making the California Republican the new House speaker.
McCarthy won the speaker’s gavel only by making concessions to hard-right Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus that now hang over his leadership, including the ability of any single lawmaker to make a motion to vacate the chair — essentially calling a vote to oust McCarthy from office.
The tenuous Republican hold on power is complicated by the presence of Rep. George Santos, the newly elected Republican from New York, who faces calls for his ouster over the lies he has admitted to telling about his education, work experience and other aspects of his life. Instead, McCarthy said the Ethics Committee will investigate. “And if something is found out, it will be dealt with,” McCarthy said.
But many House Republicans emerged confident that the messy, bitter fight made them — and McCarthy — stronger, not weaker, as they press ahead in their new majority to govern.
“You always come out better on the back side of it,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., who was nominated repeatedly by his colleagues as an alternative GOP choice for speaker. “And now we’re back to business.”
Said Rep. Scott Perry, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, “I feel pretty positive — Republicans are in charge and we’re whupping up on the left and it’s awesome.”
Republican Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., one of the chief holdouts in speaker’s fight, said the public display put McCarthy in a stronger negotiating position moving forward by showing what the speaker is up against.
“Our speaker is empowered to be in a stronger position in negotiations with the Senate in the White House, because he can say, ‘When my folks say no, they mean no.’”
Standing in gilded Statuary Hall rather than the Capitol’s usual press briefing studio in the basement, McCarthy compared his new Republican majority to the early American lawmakers. They convened in this room when the Congress was relocated from Philadelphia.
As tourists milled about Thursday afternoon, pausing to listen and take photos, McCarthy noted he was reopening the Capitol to visitors. Democrats under Speaker Nancy Pelosi had kept the building partly closed during the COVID-19 crisis and in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack by Trump’s supporters.