After 15 rounds of voting, Kevin McCarthy has secured the House speakership. Exactly what he gave to his opponents to get over the finish line? Members will find out, eventually.
For now, many are in the dark. The one public document indicating changes is the revised House rules package, and only one aspect of McCarthy’s deal with his detractors is included in it. The rest of the deal—in writing somewhere else—is more nebulous.
“No one really knows,” Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a Florida Republican, told The Dispatch on Friday afternoon. “Whoever told you anything, it’s lying. Because we have not been informed officially what it is they negotiated.”
It is clear, despite the lack of transparency into the negotiations, that McCarthy’s deal is sweeping. It would empower any individual member to force a vote on ousting the House speaker, for one thing. (Even Democrats.) It would open up the House floor to more freewheeling amendments processes and debate on spending bills. And it includes a commitment to demand slashes to government spending in exchange for hiking the debt ceiling later this year.
GOP lawmakers were left asking their colleagues for more details on a conference call Friday morning and on the House floor as votes proceeded in the afternoon. One GOP source familiar with negotiations said McCarthy’s team had negotiated a deal to cap defense spending at 2022 levels over the objections of defense hawks. They’re worried about a demand to freeze discretionary government spending at fiscal year 2022 levels, amounting to a $130 billion cut across the government. Much of the increase since fiscal year 2022—roughly $75 billion—has been related to defense.
A midday Bloomberg story broke news of the defense cuts, spooking investors in defense stocks and further sending Republicans on the Hill, including some who’d ordinarily be included in sensitive negotiations on defense spending levels, scrambling to learn more.
But Republicans still maintained Friday that cuts to defense spending are unlikely. A broad swath of the conference would fiercely oppose such a move as war continues in Ukraine, the Pentagon seeks to replenish its weapons stockpiles, and the United States works to build up Taiwan’s ability to defend itself from China. Instead, they suggested, the massive cuts in spending would come from the non-defense discretionary budget—domestic programs Democrats will bitterly defend.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, a defense hawk and McCarthy ally, said on Friday afternoon he hadn’t yet seen text of the deal, but he expected it to set an overall budget resolution at fiscal year 2022 levels. He was realistic about whether Democrats will accept slashes in their own priorities: “No,” Gallagher said of that prospect. “Of course not.”
The House doesn’t get to unilaterally make law. The White House and Senate are both held by Democrats, who will fight attempts to cut government funding, both in appropriations bills and as part of any efforts to suspend or raise the nation’s borrowing cap. For that reason, McCarthy’s deal doesn’t reflect how these debates may actually end, but it does paint a stark picture of how this Congress could unfold—with high-stakes showdowns, the threat of government shutdowns, and a looming historic debt default all in play.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican who has been critical of the group of lawmakers who opposed McCarthy this week, expressed optimism about the deal. He said the fight over budget cuts was going to happen either way.
“If you’re trying to get a budget under control, which you should be trying to do, then this is a decent framework,” Crenshaw told reporters. He said there is a “broader fear” about where the cuts will come from, but “that fight happens later.”
“A lot of this is trying to leverage the Senate to do its damn job,” Crenshaw added.
Senate appropriators have failed to advance regular spending bills in recent years, not even attempting to follow the budget and appropriations process. Instead, funding has hinged on short-term funding measures and massive omnibus spending packages, like the one Congress passed in December. Republicans want to avoid that in this Congress.
Others were more open to the idea of cutting defense spending. “We are spending too much on aircraft carriers,” House Freedom Caucus member Glenn Grothman said. “And I’m not an expert, but that tells me we’re probably spending either too much or we’re spending on the wrong things in other places of the budget as well.”
McCarthy’s success came after days of negotiations between his supporters, led by North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, among others, and his detractors, led by Texas Rep. Chip Roy.
McCarthy made the case that this week’s journey was just as valuable as the destination.
“Because it took this long, now we learned how to govern,” he told reporters Friday. “So now we’ll be able to get the job done.”