Soon after House conservatives extracted enough concessions from Kevin McCarthy to let him claim the speakership, they began plotting their next move: Pushing him as far right as they possibly could on the debt ceiling.
It started in late January, when a group of House and Senate conservatives gathered around Sen. Rick Scott’s dining room table to try to solve a seemingly impossible problem. Given McCarthy’s slim majority — and the reality that many on his right flank had never voted to lift the debt ceiling — could conservatives write a bill that would unite the party and give it at least a bit of leverage in talks with the White House?
The answer came Wednesday afternoon, when McCarthy muscled through his debt plan in the House’s most consequential vote since he won the speakership on Jan. 7. It was a huge relief for a speaker who faces the constant risk of a conservative rebellion — but the GOP elation over passage of a bill that will never become law also marked one more example of the party’s right flank shaping its congressional strategy at nearly every turn.
“The expectation was, moderates in the House have got to, at some point in time, come the way of really where I think Republicans are nationally: more conservative. Stop the spending spree,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who attended the weekly House-Senate dinner meetings at the spacious Capitol Hill townhouse of his Florida Republican colleague.
Though McCarthy and his leadership were able to satisfy their conservative wing, it came with big sacrifices that nearly blew up their plans along the way. And it’s unclear that the fractious House GOP conference can maintain even that level of unity through the next stage of the fight — dealmaking with Democrats.
Still, conservatives are rejoicing. Another dinner is scheduled for Wednesday night after passage. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), an attendee of the weekly Scott dinners who’s long pushed his party to take a hard line in debt negotiations, said conservatives’ early maneuvering helped strengthen their hand in the House GOP talks.
“You can’t do this if you just stick to a position and say, ‘My way or the highway.’ You’ve got to go convince people. We put forward proposals that, I think, convinced people that this is the right approach,” Roy said, stressing that the group was working “in concert” with the rest of the GOP conference.
Roy later helped draft the House GOP’s debt bill, a grab bag of conservative policy dreams, as part of intra-conference meetings that McCarthy’s team dubbed the “five families” meetings. That reference to “The Godfather” mafiosos aptly captures the mutual mistrust that sometimes lingers among his members.
Yet those early weeks of maneuvering by the congressional right paid off, as outlined in interviews with more than a dozen House members, senators and aides. By the time McCarthy released his plan, many of his typically resistant conservatives were on board with a leadership spending plan that largely reflected their goals: stricter work requirements for Medicaid and food stamps, Covid aid clawbacks and across-the-board spending cuts to discretionary spending.
The Freedom Caucus stalwarts who attended the Scott-hosted meetings — Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Roy — also coordinated their work with Johnson and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), all fiscal hardliners in the upper chamber. House conservatives then made their pitch to GOP leaders, who gave them unusual face time and sway over the crafting of the debt bill.
“It largely fits what we thought was necessary to save the country in December, what we thought the speaker fight should be about,” said Russ Vought, a Trump adminisration budget official who worked closely on budget plans with the Freedom Caucus.
Hours before the final tweaks to the plan early Wednesday morning, many Freedom Caucus members were voicing support for it at their weekly dinner meeting on Tuesday night. The exception was Biggs, who got worked up over the bill during that dinner, according to a Republican familiar with the discussions. He took to TV and likened its effect on the debt to driving off a cliff, only at a lower speed than Democrats’ plan. Biggs voted no.
The meetings and the list
McCarthy’s team relied on aggressive outreach to steer the massive debt bill past its narrow margin of House control. Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) and his deputy, Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), held dozens of private meetings and dinners over months that every member of the conference was invited to — including the Freedom Caucus. Leaders spent months compiling a list of every member’s debt demands, and potential objections, in order to find a middle ground.
Last month, Emmer shared his tally with aides to from McCarthy and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.). Over the coming days, it would become a full framework; on the final day of March, Emmer was walking alongside McCarthy on their way back from a press conference on the GOP energy bill when the Minnesotan handed over his final product.
“‘I think this is going to get you your 218,’” Emmer recalled telling McCarthy. “He looked at me and said, ‘go with it.’”
After party leaders unveiled their debt framework last week, McCarthy invited a group of Freedom Caucus members to air their complaints in his office — and not just the members who were privately threatening to take down the bill. Those who attended later gave the speaker high marks: It was more engagement than conservatives were used to seeing.
Perry, the House Freedom Caucus chair who also attended the Scott meetings, recalled McCarthy’s message as: “’Look, we’re not where we need to be. We’re not where we want to be. And we got to get there.’” According to one attendee, Perry said during the meetings that it would be easier to whip up support for the bill if he were not a public yes — even though he supported it at the time.
Even Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla), long one of McCarthy’s biggest antagonists, said he felt leadership was listening. “The leadership just picked up the House Freedom Caucus plan and helped us convert it into the legislative text,” he said. (Gaetz later voted no.) The plan quickly picked up support from swing district first-term members to veteran appropriators to fiscal hawks.
“We thought we were golden,” said one senior Republican involved in the deliberations. “We were in a good spot.”
…Then more demands
That goodwill didn’t last, however. Ultimately, a smaller group of Freedom Caucus members added one more demand to the pile — axing major provisions of Democrats’ marquee bill as part of the Republican plan. It was no simple tweak, as McCarthy and his team repeatedly explained to those disgruntled conservatives.
Making that change, as leadership predicted, sparked a new fight within the conference as Midwestern Republicans argued that expanding the repeal of last year’s Democratic bill would shortchange their home states’ thriving ethanol industry and have little chance of actually becoming law.
After two days of insisting he wouldn’t bend, McCarthy ultimately relented to the eight Midwesterners. GOP leaders made a key change to satisfy the entire Iowa delegation, as well as members from states like Minnesota and Missouri. Some Republicans questioned why one of their own leaders, the Minnesotan Emmer, allowed the language to be added in the first place.
“If I weren’t the whip, I would have been the loudest voice of the bunch,” Emmer said in a Wednesday interview, praising the change and noted he’d been unaware of the problem that existed in the bill: “I didn’t realize this until they told me yesterday, that they had incorrectly included pre-existing law.”
GOP leaders couldn’t stop the kowtowing there, as more rogue conservatives made their own threats. McCarthy was ultimately forced to throw another bone to the right, accelerating the bill’s cuts to federal food stamps and other benefits.
Party leaders also fielded requests for a huge array of demands for floor votes on bills and holding specific hearings that had nothing to do with debt. McCarthy promised Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) that she could take the lead on a balanced budget amendment bill with his support — not to mention offering to give her a floor vote on bills related to women’s access to reproductive health and child care services, as well as an active shooter alert bill.
McCarthy met with Mace on Wednesday as she remained opposed, one of a half-dozen meetings the speaker held with his members this week in a mad dash to passage. Rosendale and Scott authored a joint op-ed on Wednesday backing the bill — a sign that even the staunchest conservatives were now on board.
“I’ve never voted for a debt ceiling increase,” Scott said. “To do one, we’ve got to get some structural change.”
The horse-trading over the GOP’s initial debt plan may be nothing compared to what comes next. Sometime before mid-June, Republicans will need to pass a debt plan that can actually become law with the backing of a Democratic Senate and White House.
Already, some Freedom Caucus members are urging McCarthy not to budge.
Speaking to reporters after addressing his colleagues at a private Wednesday meeting, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) warned McCarthy not to “come back when they call 911 at the last hour, which any negotiator will do — run it out and say the sky is falling.”
“No changes to the bill,” Norman later recalled telling the speaker. If the debt crisis becomes an economic disaster, he added, Democrats should “be responsible.”