Kevin McCarthy was all smiles on Wednesday night after the House passed the debt ceiling bill, crafted by the Republican speaker and Joe Biden, in a resounding, bipartisan vote of 314 to 117.
“I’ve been thinking about this day before my vote for speaker because I knew the debt ceiling was coming,” McCarthy told reporters. “I wanted to make history. I wanted to do something no other Congress has done, that we would literally turn the ship and for the first time in quite some time, we’d spend less than we spent the year before. Tonight, we all made history.”
But the details of the debt ceiling vote reveal a more nuanced picture of the dynamics in the Republican-controlled House, and they suggest McCarthy’s victory lap may soon be cut short.
The debt ceiling bill, which will suspend America’s borrowing limit until 2025 and enact modest cuts to government spending, was supported by 149 Republicans and 165 Democrats in the House. Although roughly two-thirds of House Republicans voted for the bill, 71 members of McCarthy’s own conference opposed the legislation due to complaints that it did not go far enough to rein in government spending.
Speaking to reporters after the final vote, McCarthy brushed off questions about why the bill he helped craft proved more popular among House Democrats than his Republican colleagues. Instead, McCarthy focused attention on his successful effort to defy Democrats’ wishes for a “clean” debt ceiling bill with no strings attached. Biden spent months insisting he would not negotiate over the debt ceiling, but the White House was ultimately dragged into talks with Republicans, McCarthy reminded reporters.
“We were never going to get everybody, but we have spent four months bringing everybody together. And whether you voted for or voted against it, you wanted something more,” McCarthy said. “But history will write this is the largest [spending] cut in American history.”
Members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus did not view the bill the same way. Many of them argued the deal struck by McCarthy and Biden bore little resemblance to the legislation originally passed by House Republicans last month, which would have enacted much deeper spending cuts and stricter work requirements while only raising the debt ceiling into 2024.
Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, chair of the Freedom Caucus, attacked McCarthy for failing to “hold the line for the bill that we passed” in his negotiations with Biden.
“The speaker himself has said on numerous occasions, the greatest threat to America is our debt, and now is the time to act. We had the time to act, and this deal fails – fails completely,” Perry said on Tuesday. “We will do everything in our power to stop it and end it now.”
Those efforts fell short. After Freedom Caucus members failed to quash the bill when it came before the House rules committee on Tuesday, McCarthy’s Republican critics staged one final attempt to prevent the legislation’s passage. Twenty-nine House Republicans opposed the procedural motion to set up the final vote on the debt ceiling bill, and that resistance would have been enough to kill the legislation if Democrats had not come to McCarthy’s assistance. In the end, 52 Democrats supported the procedural motion, clearing the way for the bill’s ultimate passage.
But McCarthy’s failure to advance the bill along party lines did not go unnoticed by Democrats.
“It appears that you may have lost control of the floor of the House of Representatives,” said the New York representative Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic leader, on the floor on Wednesday night. “Earlier today, 29 House Republicans voted to default on our nation’s debt and against an agreement that you negotiated. It’s an extraordinary act that indicates just the nature of the extremism that is out of control on the other side of the aisle.”
The bold act of defiance from dozens of McCarthy’s fellow Republicans raised questions about his future in the speaker’s chair. Because of Republicans’ narrow majority in the House, McCarthy had to endure 15 rounds of voting before he secured the speakership back in January. To win over the skeptics within his conference, McCarthy offered a number of concessions to allay their concerns about his leadership.
One of those concessions could now come back to haunt him. According to the House rules approved after McCarthy’s victory, any single member of the chamber can introduce a “motion to vacate”, which would force a vote on ousting the sitting speaker.
Representative Ken Buck of Colorado, one of the Freedom Caucus members who opposed the debt ceiling bill, said on Wednesday that McCarthy “should be concerned” about a potential motion to vacate.
“After this vote, we will have discussions about whether there should be a motion to vacate or not,” Buck told CNN.
But even Buck acknowledged that he and his allies may not have the votes to remove McCarthy, and the speaker has said he is “not at all” concerned about losing his gavel. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who was one of eight Freedom Caucus members to support the debt ceiling bill, dismissed suggestions of ousting McCarthy as “absolutely absurd”.
“I think they would find out that it’s not as popular as they think, just because it looks good on Twitter right now,” Greene told reporters on Wednesday night. “It would be a really dumb move.”
Even if McCarthy’s critics could somehow muster the votes to oust him, it remains entirely unclear who could earn enough support in the House Republican conference to replace him. So McCarthy’s speakership appears to be safe – for now.
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