How McCarthy Kept the Right Happy on a Debt Ceiling Bill

The speaker’s all-carrots, no-sticks approach of empowering hard-right Republicans carries risks, and any negotiation with President Biden on the debt ceiling is likely to test them.

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How McCarthy Kept the Right Happy on a Debt Ceiling Bill |

Speaker Kevin McCarthy will have to keep the right flank of his party happy as he negotiates a budget deal that will inevitably be less conservative than the bill passed on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON — Speaker Kevin McCarthy narrowly passed his first major test this week when he marshaled the votes of his slim majority to muscle through a plan to tie a debt ceiling increase to spending cuts in a bid to force President Biden to negotiate over averting a disastrous default.

It was a bare-minimum victory on a doomed bill, but it reflected how Mr. McCarthy, the California Republican who clawed his way to his position by catering to the hard right, has — for now — won over the ultraconservative wing of his party.

Now comes the hard part.

Having rallied Republicans around a plan he promised would strengthen his negotiating power against Mr. Biden, Mr. McCarthy will have to keep the right flank of his party happy as he seeks to negotiate a fiscal deal with the White House that will almost certainly be far less conservative than the bill the House passed on Wednesday.

Mr. McCarthy succeeded this week by doing what he promised to during his drawn-out race for the speakership: empowering some of the most conservative lawmakers in his conference, the same ones who led the effort to block his election in January.

They were at the table with Mr. McCarthy and his allies for weeks to strategize over the debt limit legislation. When some of his colleagues were wavering over the bill, Representative Chip Roy of Texas, a leader of the group of Republicans who opposed Mr. McCarthy for speaker, stood up in a closed-door meeting hours before the vote and urged them to support it.

Mr. McCarthy may have needed to arm-twist and cajole to pass legislation that will go nowhere in the Senate, but his ability to keep his members together — including soliciting “yes” votes from right-wing members who proudly boasted that they had never before voted to increase the debt ceiling — amounted to a significant, if symbolic, achievement.

The turnaround was fueled by his all-carrots, no-sticks leadership strategy of courting and elevating influential, arch-conservative lawmakers. Having studied his ill-fated predecessors, Speakers Paul D. Ryan and John A. Boehner, Mr. McCarthy has concluded that their fatal flaw was unnecessarily alienating the hard-right, who then made their jobs miserable.

Now, he defines himself in opposition to them.

A person familiar with Mr. McCarthy’s thinking compared his strategy to an episode of “Seinfeld” in which George Costanza decides to do the opposite of his instincts and routines. Whatever Mr. Boehner did, the person said, Mr. McCarthy would do the reverse.

In 2011, when he was facing a debt ceiling breach and conservative Republicans were balking at raising the ceiling, Mr. Boehner sought to sideline the hard-right flank of his conference and negotiate with President Barack Obama to avert a catastrophic default. In return, his hard-right members tormented him.

Mr. McCarthy has done the opposite, making concessions to the right from the beginning. It is a strategy that carries significant risks. Some of the same concessions Mr. McCarthy made to become speaker could be used against him if conservative lawmakers grow unhappy with how he handles negotiations with Mr. Biden.

Mr. McCarthy agreed to decentralize the power of the top post and empower the party’s factions, including allowing a single lawmaker to force a vote to oust him as speaker and putting a critical bloc of hard-right lawmakers on the influential committee that dictates which bills receive a vote on the House floor.

ImageRepresentative Chip Roy, a hard-right lawmaker, urged his colleagues to support Mr. McCarthy’s debt ceiling package.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

But for now, key conservative bloc members argue, they have laid the foundation for a détente that few observers expected.

“Kevin wasn’t going to become speaker without allowing three of us to be on the Rules Committee," said Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky. “But now I’ve come to realize I don’t think he could have stayed speaker without three of us on the Rules Committee.”

“If I were on the outside,” Mr. Massie said, “I don’t think I’d be lending my vote to the effort.”

The night before Mr. McCarthy unveiled the debt limit legislation, he dispatched his staff to show the bill text to influential lawmakers leading ideological factions of the party, including Representatives Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, and Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, the chairman of the Main Street Caucus, a group of mainstream conservatives. Mr. McCarthy’s team walked the lawmakers through the bill line by line.

That helped prevent an organized bloc of conservatives from revolting.

“I believe this is an overwhelmingly solid bill that didn’t get everything that I would have loved,” Mr. Roy said. “It didn’t get everything to some of my other colleagues in different ideological spheres would have loved, but that’s the process working.”

Russell T. Vought, the former Trump administration budget director who now leads the hard-right Center for Renewing America and who helped lead opposition to Mr. McCarthy’s speakership, argued it was a natural outgrowth of what he called the “coalition government” that Mr. McCarthy’s concessions created.

“Most of the 20 realize that post-power sharing agreement, they are now governing themselves, and you make different decisions when you are actually having to bring along the entirety of your conference,” Mr. Vought said. “You govern from the right, but when push comes to shove, you’ve got to put something out that can pass, and I think you saw that this week.”

Mr. McCarthy also had little choice, given the tiny margin of control he has in the House and the large number of hard-right lawmakers in his ranks, a dynamic that was made painfully clear during his battle for his job.

“It forced some unlikely bedfellows into a room together; it forced people to get to know one another,” said Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana, a key leadership ally who has helped Mr. McCarthy win the votes both to become speaker and to pass the debt limit bill.

Mr. McCarthy honed some of those tactics in 2011, when he served as Mr. Boehner’s whip during debt ceiling negotiations. He began taking the pulse of restive Tea Party freshmen on the negotiations in so-called listening sessions that the current whip, Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, resurrected earlier this year.

At that time, outside right-wing groups were growing increasingly influential. Their leaders, especially at Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation, encouraged lawmakers to defy Mr. Boehner at every turn.

It could have gone the same way for Mr. McCarthy. Instead, when Mr. McCarthy unveiled House Republicans’ debt limit bill, he had key conservatives within his conference praising it, and the outside groups agitating for its passage. Heritage Action announced that it would penalize lawmakers who voted against the bill on its public rating system.

Mr. Massie helped write the measure that eventually led Mr. Boehner to resign. He has a copy framed and hanging on the wall of his office in Washington, and has taken in recent weeks to reading the grievances aloud to underscore how much times have changed.

The House, he wrote then, “requires the service of a speaker who will endeavor to follow an orderly and inclusive process without imposing his or her will upon any member.”

ImageSpeaker John A. Boehner sought to marginalize the hard-right flank of his conference during debt ceiling negotiations in 2011.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

“I used to get on a plane, fly to D.C., vote on some post office naming, and wait for the Rules Committee to meet to get a glimpse of what might happen,” Mr. Massie said. “And then, only the next day at conference, would I find out what I would be doing that week.”

Now, he has a seat on the panel.

Whether the peace can hold in the coming months is an open question. Representative Ken Buck of Colorado, one of four Republicans who opposed the debt bill, noted that even passing a bill headed nowhere took everything Mr. McCarthy had.

“It is going to get harder,” Mr. Buck said. If a negotiated compromise emerges, it is “going to be a very tough vote for people.”

Jonathan Swan contributed reporting.


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