Kevin McCarthy received 203 votes on Tuesday’s first ballot for Speaker of the House — 15 votes shy of what he needs to win. It was a shocking failure for the potential speaker, but one that has been years in the making.
Tuesday’s vote marked a culmination of California Republican McCarthy’s up-and-down relationship with the far-right Freedom Caucus, which has long advocated for more power in the House and often felt ripped off by House leadership. A group of conservatives, most of whom are associated with the Freedom Caucus or were endorsed by its campaign arm, is asking for what amounts to a series of administrative changes in the chamber — changes that would shift the balance of power in the House towards a small but powerful faction of far-right members.
And while Congress is at a standstill without a speaker, Freedom Caucus members have little to lose: Much of their ideology is based on the idea that government does too much. And for now, the House can’t do anything.
The demands from the right also hold symbolic value heading into the new Congress. They constitute a loyalty test that conservatives say is necessary because of a legacy of mistrust.
“It is true that we struggle with trust with Mr. McCarthy. Because time and again, his viewpoints, his positions, they shift like sands underneath you,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a leading McCarthy critic, said Tuesday.
Those demands are growing increasingly unreasonable, McCarthy allies argue.
“They’re making demands and acting like they are more righteous and pure than anyone else,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told the Omaha World-Herald on Tuesday. “We’re tired of it.”
The rules that Freedom Caucus members and other conservatives want to change guide how much power rank-and-file members have vis a vis House leaders, who will decide what bills get taken up by committees and whether the House launches high-profile investigations into the Biden family in the coming year.
The Freedom Caucus’ targets extend beyond the much-discussed debate over the “motion to vacate,” the rule that lets lawmakers propose a vote on the speakership.
The motion to vacate is indeed important: If McCarthy agreed to lower the threshold so that any single member of the House could force a vote on whether he should continue as speaker, which was the custom in the past, McCarthy would be more vulnerable if he serves as speaker than he would like. (On this, McCarthy has offered the right a compromise: a five-member threshold as opposed to one member.) But the motion to vacate was only one of many issues on the table in recent weeks as McCarthy tried to win over opponents.
In December, seven conservatives sent McCarthy a letter containing a long list of requests: They asked for a new congressional committee “with subpoena authority” dedicated toward investigating what they called a “weaponized government.” They urged McCarthy to use must-pass legislation, like spending bills, as a tool to shove conservative priorities — like a ban on vaccine mandates — through a divided Congress.
And they demanded that conservatives gain seats on key congressional committees. Committee chairs have the power to steer which bills are passed and sent to the House floor, but House leaders have rarely put members of the House Freedom Caucus in charge of committees, limiting the group’s influence.
“Conservatives are dramatically underrepresented on the so-called ‘A’ committees (e.g. Appropriations, Energy & Commerce, Ways & Means, etc.),” the letter to McCarthy read. “Of the 20 ‘standing’ committees in the House, only one is led by a [House Freedom Caucus] member.”
Conversations have also involved the House taking up specific bills addressing border policy and balancing the budget — requests that, Gaetz said, McCarthy refused to agree to.
McCarthy has tried to make concessions. In a recent letter to Republicans, he said he would ensure key committees “more closely reflect the ideological makeup of our conference,” and that he would create a congressional subcommittee devoted to opposing “weaponized government.”
But McCarthy has not relented in other areas — and a long legacy of mistrust between Freedom Caucus members and House leaders is making it all the more difficult, leading to accusations that McCarthy won’t keep his word.
On his Fox News show Tuesday, Tucker Carlson fired off a warning, arguing that McCarthy will need to make major changes in order to get what he wants.
“McCarthy is going to have to give [opponents] something real. Not more airy promises, which he specializes in. He’s going to give them actual concessions,” Carlson said. “If Kevin McCarthy wants to be the speaker, he is going to have to do things he would never do otherwise.”
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a Freedom Caucus member and prominent McCarthy critic, insisted during a Tuesday appearance on Fox News that he was negotiating in good faith with McCarthy. Despite McCarthy’s frequent outreach to Freedom Caucus members in recent years, Roy painted McCarthy as an unreliable ally to House conservatives.
“The speaker-elect has a history of voting with Democrats and voting with the minority against the majority Republicans in the last decade. He’s been in the leadership of Republicans since 2009,” said Roy. “We want to be able to have a check against the swamp.”
During a Tuesday morning meeting, McCarthy ally Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) threatened to kick far-right lawmakers off their congressional committees if they voted against McCarthy, Roy said, adding that the “threat” was “not received well by people in the room.” Like Roy, most of McCarthy’s opponents are members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which sees taking radical stances against power as one of its only means to achieve conservative principles.
McCarthy has gained support in the House by building relationships with the different factions of Republicans first and foremost, including former President Donald Trump and conservatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). It’s a different approach from that of Paul Ryan, who tried to unify Republicans by putting together a policy or political vision that lawmakers would want to rally around. But in the current Congress, strategic alliances aren’t enough to garner support from the House’s wildly divergent Republican ideologies.
And the House Freedom Caucus has made it particularly difficult: Rather than compromise, the Freedom Caucus is willing to grind activity in the House to a halt, putting McCarthy in a hard-to-win situation where he would have to make significant concessions to the Freedom Caucus to garner their votes.
Despite his efforts to reach out to the even the fringiest members of the party, defending Greene, McCarthy has struggled at times to seem like a bona fide member of the MAGA wing of the party: The New York Times released private recordings of McCarthy criticizing Trump last spring, and saying he wanted him to resign after the Jan. 6 riot, for example.
It wasn’t the first time McCarthy accidentally betrayed conservatives. When he ran for House speaker in 2016, comments that McCarthy made on television about the Benghazi committee marked the beginning of the end of his bid.
Republicans at the time maintained that the Benghazi investigation into the attack on the U.S. mission in Libya was not a political attempt to disparage Hillary Rodham Clinton. But just weeks before the 2020 election, McCarthy suggested otherwise.
“Everybody thought Hillary Rodham Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy said on Fox News. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s un-trustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought.” (A fellow Republican called McCarthy’s comments an “absolutely inappropriate statement.”)
These missteps might not matter if Republicans held a large majority in the House of Representatives and McCarthy could pick and choose which parts of the caucus he wanted to be his supporters.
But the GOP retook the House with only a four-seat majority, so McCarthy needs to try to please almost everyone. And, crucially, his conservative critics are willing to wage an all-out fight over House rules and committees that more moderate lawmakers aren’t willing to take on.
During a closed-door speech Monday, McCarthy highlighted the concessions he has tried to make for conservatives and insisted he is prepared for a drawn-out battle to become speaker.
But he is facing a group of critics who are willing to endure more dysfunction and conflict than other lawmakers. Before the Freedom Caucus officially formed, future members were involved in shutting down the government in 2013 in an attempt to defund Obamacare. And shortly after the group came on the scene, Freedom Caucus members forced the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner and declined to endorse McCarthy to replace him. Eventually, many Freedom Caucus members supported Paul Ryan, who became speaker.
During these battles, the group has abided by a few key principles: Caucus members hold an internal vote to pursue an issue, then hold together so they have power as a voting bloc. They stick to what they want regardless of bad press or criticism, and they aren’t afraid to escalate a debate to previously unheard-of levels — like shutting down the government or drawing out a vote for Speaker of the House for days — in order to get what they want.
Because Freedom Caucus members are often arguing for limited government, the group doesn’t mind if Congress stops working as much as do lawmakers who are trying to pass new laws. Though the group has legislative objectives, and wants to launch a series of investigations into the Biden administration in 2023, having a properly functioning government is not a priority for Freedom Caucus members the way it is for House leaders like McCarthy, giving the group leverage because it is willing to steer Congress into messy unknown territory like this week’s speaker fight.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a founding Freedom Caucus member and unofficial leader of the group, often says: “You get a better deal at 12:01 than 11:59.”
Right now, debate over who will be the next House speaker differs from past Freedom Caucus campaigns in one key way: Some members, including Jordan and Greene, are not maneuvering with the Freedom Caucus. McCarthy has built relationships with Jordan and Greene in recent years and promised to restore committee assignments to Greene that Democrats stripped from her in the last Congress.
McCarthy opponents, however, have shown no signs of letting up during the chamber’s second day of deliberation over who will be the next speaker.
Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.