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Could Kevin McCarthy Give Away Too Much?
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Could Kevin McCarthy Give Away Too Much?

Concessions to the House Freedom Caucus runs the risk of alienating more moderate allies.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy talks to Rep.-elect Andy Ogles in the House chamber Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy seems willing to give away just about anything to become House speaker. But at a certain point, concessions to far-right members could start to bleed support from his existing allies.

On Thursday night—as the 11th fruitless speakership vote wrapped up on the House floor—McCarthy’s camp put in writing more compromises in an effort to woo his detractors: more power for rank-and-file members on the House floor and a one-member threshold to begin proceedings to depose McCarthy if he does become speaker, among other concessions. The mood among Republicans turned optimistic as the House adjourned, with McCarthy’s camp telling reporters it expects the deal to net McCarthy several more votes as speaker. 

McCarthy faced reporters’ questions about whether the concessions would make him a weaker speaker. But with McCarthy critics getting more of what they wanted, murmurs grew earlier Thursday about the risk of McCarthy’s support fraying among mainstream Republicans who have, so far, stood by the California Republican.

A primary point of frustration: the anti-McCarthy bloc’s push to lead key subcommittees and take spots on the powerful House Rules panel that decides how the chamber will run for the next two years. Such a deal isn’t yet final, but if it happens as part of their negotiations, Republicans may grow agitated about Freedom Caucus members leap-frogging other lawmakers with seniority or having disproportionate representation on committees compared to other members.

There is “very little support for affirmative action,” Rep. Andy Barr, a Kentucky Republican, told The Dispatch. “Everybody should stand on their own merits and earn the committee assignments based on equal access to the steering committee.”

After past clashes with GOP leaders, House Freedom Caucus members stood little chance of getting the committee assignments they wanted. That dynamic shifted in recent years, with Rep. Jim Jordan becoming the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. McCarthy’s opponents have more spots in mind, though. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, for example, has angled for chairing a House Armed Services subcommittee; Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland has reportedly wanted to chair the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies; and Rep. Andrew Ogles, a freshman lawmaker-elect from Tennessee, is interested in the Financial Services and Judiciary committees, Bloomberg reported Wednesday.

“As far as skipping over people’s seniority, I think that’s where we’ve gone on too far,” Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt told reporters ahead of the noon vote. “You’re getting in some real sticky ground that then you could cause a backlash.”

Aderholt has been on the Appropriations subcommittee Harris wants to chair for more than 20 years and is in line as a possible chair.

“It’s a distinct possibility,” Aderholt said, that McCarthy might lose support among non-Freedom Caucus members if the rules package—which members will vote on after the speaker is selected—ends up containing provisions unpalatable to more moderate Republicans: “You could lose some votes on that side.”

He was just one of several McCarthy allies warning committee placements could be a problem.

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a New York Republican, also mentioned committees when asked Thursday if any Freedom Caucus requests concerned her. “They should be represented like all the other caucuses, but they shouldn’t have more than other members have. We should have equal representation on these committees,” she said. “I think that’s probably where a lot of members will draw the line.”

“I do think it could be problematic if someone is viewed to advance ahead of other members because of their behavior,” Rep. William Timmons, a South Carolina Republican, told The Dispatch. “Rewarding this is not good, but obviously we need to put it behind us. So I think it’s going to be a delicate balance.”

“I’m not on board with the idea that you have to guarantee them X number of slots on the [Appropriations] committee or the Rules committee,” Rep. Mike Gallagher said, referring to Freedom Caucus members. “I think that sets a bizarre precedent where every faction—whether it’s the moderates, or the whatever caucus—is going to demand, ‘Where are our seats?’ And then you’ve subverted the steering committee process.”

But as of Thursday he hadn’t seen support for McCarthy wane among moderates.

Some members suggested there needs to be balance—with some expressing an openness to more seats for Freedom Caucus members.

But Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska called committing to subcommittee chairs and committee chairs “a red line.” “They are demanding a gavel and Kevin McCarthy’s saying, no way,” Bacon said. “In fact, he said ‘hell no’ to the rest of us on that. But that’s one of the things they’re currently demanding. That should not be in any agreement.”

He later said he would support expanding the committees by a couple of seats to give Freedom Caucus members access.

To make it onto a committee, House members must first be nominated by their party’s leadership-driven steering committee. Typically, the chairs of the committees are chosen by the steering committee in advance of a new Congress being sworn in. This year, though, Republicans delayed that process due to the uncertainty surrounding the vote for speaker.

Once the steering committee fills out the rest of its nominations, committee members are approved first by an intra-party vote and then by the whole House in a simple resolution, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

No particular rule limits the sizes or partisan ratios of committees, so leadership negotiates or determines these parameters each new Congress.

Friday could reveal whether McCarhty’s bid to win the speaker’s gavel will be successful. Hours before the House adjourned Thursday with a potential deal put to paper, other McCarthy supporters downplayed the risk of his support souring. Rep. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, told Punchbowl News that conversations had been “fruitful.” Though the number of votes against McCarthy hadn’t shrunk, votes for McCarthy hadn’t either. “That is a very positive sign for the day.”

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.

Price St. Clair is a former reporter for The Dispatch.