early and often

Freedom Caucus Won’t Let Kevin McCarthy Forget Who Owns Him

The man who would be Speaker. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Everything I’ve ever read or heard about House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy suggests that all he ever wants for Christmas is a Speaker’s gavel. Despite some recent adverse trends for his party, the odds are still pretty good (a 70 percent probability, according to FiveThirtyEight) that the Californian will finally get his wish this year. But like Nancy Pelosi in 2020, McCarthy may wake up after the 2022 election to discover his margin of control is too small for comfort. By late August, CBS News had lowered its projection of House Republican wins to 226 seats, a majority of eight. The highest-probability outcome in FiveThirtyEight’s forecast is 223 seats, a majority of five. Anything like those results will embolden the GOP’s abrasive MAGA faction, centered in the perpetually troublemaking House Freedom Caucus, to cause trouble for McCarthy under the threat of defenestrating him altogether.

According to the Washington Examiner, right-wing firebugs are already formulating a set of demands to be advanced in conjunction with the formal postelection leadership vote that would catapult McCarthy into the Speakership if his party flips the House:

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus are calling for Republicans to vote on a conference rules package before the party elects its members of leadership next year, according to multiple sources familiar with the talks …

The group put forward a list of demands members want to see in the rules package earlier this year, aimed at decentralizing power away from congressional leadership.

Said demands reportedly include two rule changes that will directly limit the Speaker’s power. One would institutionalize the informal rule (once called the “Hastert rule” after former Speaker Dennis Hastert) that no legislation will be brought to the floor unless a majority of Republicans support it. In the likely postelection scenario of a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-controlled Senate and White House, a “majority of the majority” rule would give House conservatives a veto on any deal-making by McCarthy that would involve a coalition with House Democrats to get something important done that Freedom Caucus types don’t like.

A second demand is to clarify and thus make more feasible a procedure (a “motion to vacate the chair”) for ejecting a Speaker between leadership elections, much as the Freedom Caucus once threatened to do in a maneuver that forced the resignation of Speaker John Boehner in 2015.

Together these rules in a closely divided House would make McCarthy completely hostage to the wishes of the Freedom Caucus, even though in the hypothetical under discussion he would be the highest-ranking Republican in America and thus a presumed big cheese. Under the surface of what MAGA folk are trying to ensure is that no one will be in a position to compete with Donald Trump as a GOP power broker going into 2024. They also want to remind McCarthy not to imagine himself as having the freedom of action enjoyed by Nancy Pelosi, who managed her caucus’s warring factions with consummate skill for so long.

Punchbowl News reports that McCarthy is feeling his oats and has vowed not to make any promises or succumb to any threats as he prepares to reach his career-long goal: “His message Tuesday in a closed party meeting was to focus for the next seven weeks on winning the majority and deal with the rules later.” But that’s just your normal coach talk to the team before the game. He knows that down the road he won’t be able to savor victory without coming to terms with the ideologues who hold a mortgage on his tenure.

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Freedom Caucus Won’t Let Kevin McCarthy Forget Who Owns Him