Speaker Kevin McCarthy was forced to send House lawmakers home for the weekend on Wednesday after conservative insurgents paralyzed the chamber in protest over his debt-limit deal with Democrats.
Mr. McCarthy said that time away from Washington would help ease tensions between Republican leadership and members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus.
“What we’re gonna do is we’re gonna come back on Monday, work through it, and be back working for the American public,” said Mr. McCarthy, California Republican.
The decision to send lawmakers home came after Mr. McCarthy was unable to muster sufficient Republican votes to bring a slew of GOP initiatives to the House floor. Mr. McCarthy kept the chamber in recess all of Wednesday as behind-the-scenes negotiations continued with 11 conservative holdouts allied with the Freedom Caucus.
The rebels are upset over Mr. McCarthy’s deal with President Biden to raise the debt limit beyond the 2024 presidential election and the tactics used to pass it last week.
“These continued sellouts breach the agreement we made in January for a unified, functioning Congress,” said Rep. Lauren Boebert, Colorado Republican. “I’ve had enough of the games.”
On the losing end of the conservative blockade are bills to prohibit the Biden administration from banning gas stoves and a measure requiring Congress to approve any new regulation costing the economy more than $100 million annually.
Both measures are backed by an overwhelming majority of House Republicans. One centrist GOP lawmaker told The Washington Times that frustration was running high in the face of the delay.
“This is the agenda that we campaigned and won the House on that’s being ground to a halt,” said the lawmaker. “This stuff should be settled behind closed doors in a [GOP] conference meeting, rather than out in the open.”
Given the narrow House majority, Mr. McCarthy can only lose four GOP lawmakers on any vote before having to rely on Democrats. That was exactly what happened when the speaker reached his debt-limit deal with President Biden.
The agreement, which hikes the debt ceiling until January 2025, passed because of a coalition of House Republicans and Democrats. Overall, 71 Republican lawmakers bucked Mr. McCarthy and voted against the legislation.
Conservative rebels say that Mr. McCarthy broke his word by pushing through the debt-limit agreement with Democratic votes. While they have issued few public demands, conservative hardliners are pushing 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,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican, 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.”
The demand comes as conservative hardliners fret that Mr. McCarthy’s reliance on Democrats could become a habit.
Rep. Andy Biggs, a former chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, expressed concern that Mr. McCarthy would rely on Democratic votes to steamroll conservative opposition to major legislation.
“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.”
Others want Mr. McCarthy to agree to $130 billion in spending cuts for the upcoming fiscal year. The push 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 hinted, however, that the agreement to keep spending flat was merely a ceiling, not a floor.
“Whenever you put a cap, that’s the ceiling,” said the speaker. “We can always spend less. I’ve always advocated for spending less.”
It is unlikely that Mr. Biden and the Democratic-controlled Senate will see it the same way. If they do not and Mr. McCarthy sticks with the Freedom Caucus, a government shutdown could be inevitable.
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.
Outside of the rules package, much of Mr. McCarthy’s agreement with the hardliners was informal. Mr. Gaetz, for instance, has said that the speaker agreed to not pass legislation without the support of at least half of the Republican conference.
Rep. Ken Buck said that Mr. McCarthy would need to revisit the agreement and offer more concrete pledges to break the gridlock.
“We’ve been lied to and we can’t trust people,” said Mr. Buck, Colorado Republican. “They’re going to have to make a trustworthy deal again, and then we can unify and move things forward.”
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