House conservatives revolted against their leaders Tuesday by bringing floor action to a screeching halt — a stunning display of internal strife fueled by residual anger over the debt ceiling deal Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) struck with President Biden and passed last week.
The rebellion had the immediate effect of blocking a handful of messaging bills House GOP leaders were hoping to pass this week. But the longer-term ramifications might prove to be much more grave for McCarthy, who survived a tumultuous road to the Speakership, then orchestrated a delicate deal with Biden to prevent a default, only to have the agreement backfire politically — in a highly public fashion — when payback-seeking conservatives mutinied on Tuesday.
The stunning episode — which came as McCarthy was basking in the glow of the debt ceiling victory — has immediately renewed questions about whether he and his leadership team can regain control of the floor and manage their restive conference with a razor-thin majority going forward.
It also demonstrated that McCarthy’s conservative detractors will seek novel ways to exert their influence over the Speaker, even without detonating the motion-to-vacate option, which would trigger a vote to remove his gavel.
“We’re frustrated at the way this place is operating,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) — one of the conservatives who voted against the rule — told reporters as the vote was happening.
It’s incredibly rare for members of the majority party to force down a rule, a procedural vote that governs debate of legislation on the floor. Members almost always vote along party lines for the rule even if they later break rank to vote for or against the underlying legislation, making it a test of party unity.
A rule vote last failed on the floor in 2002.
But Tuesday was the second time in a week that House conservatives voted against the GOP rule. Democrats crossed the aisle last week to help McCarthy pass the rule governing the debt ceiling package after 29 Republicans voted against it. That vote was an anomaly, fueled by Biden’s endorsement of the package and the underlying urgency of preventing a default.
In contrast to last week, when leadership had advance notice of the rebellion and time to secure Democratic cooperation, Tuesday’s revolt came as a surprise and sparked a dramatic scramble on the House floor.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) and House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) huddled with more than a dozen conservatives in the back of the chamber in a tense effort to flip votes and ease the conservatives’ concerns. Conversations developed from tense one-on-one conversations to group discussions.
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) at one point appeared visibly angry, speaking with animated hand gestures. House Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry (R-Pa.) was also present, though he voted for the rule.
The rule ultimately failed, 206-220, after the five-minute vote was held open for more than 50 minutes, with Scalise joining 11 other Republicans to oppose the bill — a strictly tactical move that allows him to bring it up later.
The underlying legislation stalled by the defeated rule included two measures to prohibit federal bans of gas stoves and two others designed to curb federal regulations on the industry.
Bishop said leadership flouted an agreement struck in January during the Speaker’s race to revert total discretionary spending to fiscal 2022 levels. It is not clear whether such an agreement existed, though conservatives at the time called for a budget resolution within that framework.
GOP leaders also defend the debt bill as increasing defense spending and reverting other spending to around fiscal 2022 levels.
Conservatives were also frustrated by more Democrats voting for the debt limit bill than Republicans.
“We took a stand in January to end the era of the imperial Speakership, and we’re concerned that the fundamental commitments that allowed Kevin McCarthy to assume the Speakership have been violated as a consequence of the debt limit deal,” Gaetz said.
“The answer for us is to reassert House conservatives as the appropriate coalition partner for our leadership instead of them making common cause with Democrats.”
The conservatives have leverage.
With Democrats certain to oppose future rules on all partisan measures, just a handful of conservatives have the power to block the entirety of the Republican agenda into the indefinite future. Some suggested they’re ready to do just that.
“What we plan to do is to be ready at all points in time, acting in good faith, to reforge the unity that was destroyed last week. And so what happens depends on what — leadership is inclined to reciprocate and proceed,” Bishop told reporters.
“Every single thing about this is about how are we going to proceed to move the priorities for the American people,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said. “But it’s gonna take a lot to restore our faith that we can do that in light of what happened with the debt limit.”
The driving force behind the clash involved Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), who has been embroiled in a back-and-forth with Scalise over the Georgia Republican’s legislation to prevent a federal ban on pistol stabilizing braces.
Clyde last week accused leadership of threatening to block his bill from receiving a floor vote if he opposed the rule on the debt ceiling bill. Scalise said Tuesday morning he informed Clyde it was Republican opposition — not his vote on last week’s rule — that was preventing a vote, but GOP leadership was “working hard” to get the legislation passed.
Following that response, Clyde doubled down on his accusation.
“Let me be unequivocally clear, I was threatened that if I voted against the closed rule to the debt ceiling agreement, it would be very difficult to bring my pistol stabilizing brace bill to the House floor vote a vote,” he said.
Clyde had been expecting to get a vote on his bill next week. After meeting with Scalise following the failed rule vote, he said a vote is scheduled on the legislation next Tuesday.
Clyde voted in favor of the rule on Tuesday, but other conservatives leaned on his clash with leadership to justify their dramatic protest. During Tuesday’s vote, Gaetz said he was “very aggrieved at the punishment that was delivered to” Clyde.
“We’re not gonna live in a system where our members are subject to this type of petty punishment,” Gaetz said.
But Bishop said the alleged threat against Clyde “is a symptom of the larger issue” that fueled the votes against the rule.
It is unclear what the conservatives are demanding.
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) said he wants McCarthy to announce that he went back on his word but will abide by it going forward.
The compromise bill infuriated the ideological fringes of both parties — a dynamic McCarthy has readily acknowledged. But the Speaker has also characterized that opposition as evidence of a successful deal in divided Washington, suggesting it would be a template for the must-pass bipartisan bills to come, including legislation to fund the government and prevent a government shutdown.
“I think it only proves that the bill was right,” McCarthy told reporters in the Capitol on Monday night.
Aris Folley and Rachel Frazin contributed.