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Kevin McCarthy’s Next Task: ‘Relationship Repair’
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Kevin McCarthy’s Next Task: ‘Relationship Repair’

Some Republicans see the debt ceiling deal as a breach in trust.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, May 25, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had a couple words this week for insurgent members considering ousting him over his debt limit deal with President Joe Biden: “Bring it.”

It’s not clear they will: One member of the House Freedom Caucus told The Dispatch the group will probably discuss internally next week whether to file a motion to vacate the chair—a tool to force a vote on removing McCarthy as speaker. But only a couple members of the group have indicated they might support a move against McCarthy, and others have openly opposed the idea (and some Democrats might be even willing to help McCarthy remain in power). 

What is clear, though, is that this week’s debt ceiling deal breached trust between McCarthy and his right flank. A swath of Republicans slammed the bill, which suspends the debt ceiling until January 2025, for not cutting enough spending. The California Republican will have to win back support from his members in the coming weeks if he wants to smooth tensions within the conference. 

“I’m not going to lie, we have some relationship repair that needs to happen,” close McCarthy ally Rep. Garret Graves acknowledged in remarks to reporters this week.

That could look like elevating other conservative priorities, such as investigations into the Biden administration or impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. It could also entail one-on-one meetings between McCarthy and his critics.

Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Republican, has accused McCarthy of breaking promises purportedly made behind closed doors in January, when skeptics agreed to give him their backing to become speaker after 15 rounds of voting. Roy said this week the GOP conference has been “torn asunder” by the debt limit bill.

On Thursday, Roy said he plans to sit down with McCarthy next week to discuss how the debt limit negotiations unfolded. The deal McCarthy struck, Roy said, “does not completely comport” with the agreements he made with conservatives in January.

Feedback from the GOP base has been fierce. One Republican lawmaker who supported the deal described an influx of angry calls this week, largely from outside his district, urging him to oppose it. Another Republican—Rep. Randy Weber, a Freedom Caucus member who defended McCarthy during a GOP conference meeting this week—said he had to vote against the legislation after being “inundated” with complaints from constituents. 

How willing McCarthy’s critics are to challenge him may depend on how long conservative activists kvetch about the deal. Some high-profile figures are on the warpath, arguing McCarthy conceded too much to Democrats. Russ Vought, former director of the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget, appears to be itching for a fight with McCarthy. And former Trump adviser Steve Bannon suggested primarying Reps. Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene for standing behind McCarthy on the bill.

They’re particularly incensed that more House Democrats voted for the measure than Republicans. The House passed the bill with an overwhelming tally of 314-117 Wednesday night, but 165 of the affirmative votes came from Democrats with 149 Republicans joining. 

Senate Does its Part to Avert Default

Senators, meanwhile, passed the debt ceiling suspension Thursday night, sending it to the president’s desk for his signature. Crisis averted, in the nick of time—and this reporter is grateful she won’t have to think about the debt ceiling again for a while.

Some opponents of the deal had promised last week to hold it up as long as possible, but the Senate’s bipartisan commitment to not working on Fridays won out. Senate leaders set up votes on a slew of amendments for members to blow off steam Thursday night, followed by a vote on final passage. None of the amendments were adopted, and the bill advanced with a tally of 63-36.

Republicans had varied reasons for opposing it: Some thought it didn’t go far enough, like their conservative House counterparts. But others worried the bill’s slight increase in defense spending will actually be a cut in the coming fiscal year and the next after adjusting for inflation. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, slammed the package as a “catastrophe for defense,” adding he was disgusted by political leaders’ “decision to make it remotely possible to gut our national security apparatus at a time of great peril.”

Graham demanded assurances from Senate leaders that the chamber will move to pass appropriations bills on time to avoid further spending cuts imposed by the legislation. Senate leaders also said the chamber would be able to respond to “emerging threats and needs” in emergency supplemental spending bills, potentially with more defense spending and aid to Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia.

Graham still voted against the bill in the end. He said he’s learned his lesson about allowing small groups of negotiators to quietly craft deals without input from the rest of Congress.

“I will never let this happen again as long as I’m here, to let people negotiate behind closed doors and not tell me what they’re doing on defense,” he told reporters. “I blame myself for not being more involved and more active.”

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.