A few things to watch as McCarthy becomes Speaker


The bitter battle to confirm Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker is finally over and the groundwork has been laid for the 118th Congress.

But the multiday, historically long process laid bare the divisions and potential issues McCarthy and House Republicans face as they seek to pass legislation, launch investigations and get reelected in two years.

So what lies ahead for McCarthy, the GOP and Democrats? 

Here are six things to watch as Speaker McCarthy takes his seat:

How much did the Speaker battle weaken McCarthy?

The House Freedom Caucus has power for the first time since Democrats won the House in 2018, and the far-right group wasted no time in asserting itself, providing a glimpse at the issues McCarthy will confront as he takes over as the weakest Speaker in recent memory. 

The caucus of hard-line conservatives has put McCarthy between a rock and a hard place as he attempts to manage the unruly group and deal with bipartisan legislation that is likely to come over from the Senate — which will have to be cobbled together with 60 votes and will be, by its nature, more moderate.

What happens if the Senate sends over a spending deal later this summer that isn’t palatable to the deal McCarthy struck with House conservatives? Will he be willing to shut down the government, which Freedom Caucus members will likely be clamoring for him to do?

How much will he be willing to fight, with a one-vote threshold for a motion to oust him hanging over his head?

McCarthy’s goal for years was to win the gavel. No one questions that, including his allies. 

Now, the essential question to watch is: How far will McCarthy go to keep hold of the Speakership? 

Whether he cost himself a long and extended tenure in the position remains to be seen.

Debt limit, debt limit, debt limit

The looming effort to increase the debt ceiling will likely be the ultimate test of the coming year for the California Republican and will prove consequential in answering how long his tenure will last.

This week’s drawn-out adventure to name a Speaker is already causing some in the GOP agita over what’s to come when it’s time later this year to raise the nation’s borrowing limit — an issue that caused the party intense consternation in 2011, when the U.S.’s credit rating was dinged for the first time in history. 

“You’re looking at a preview of coming attractions,” Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) said amid the series of failed votes before a deal was reached. 

The Treasury Department has not yet said when exactly the U.S. will reach the debt limit, but it is expected to be sometime after July, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. 

Conservatives on Friday declined to reveal specifics about the deal struck with leaders in recent days, but a number of them indicated that cuts to mandatory spending programs — like Social Security and Medicare — will have to be part of any package, or else. 

“There will be no clean debt ceiling increase, that’s for sure,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), chairman of the Freedom Caucus, told reporters on Friday. 

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a fellow holdout until Friday, indicated that they would hold McCarthy’s feet to the fire over the cuts. 

“It’s safe to say that we believe there ought to be specific, concrete limits on spending attached to a debt ceiling increase,” Roy said, adding that the framework “serves as the template by which we’re going to be holding him accountable.”

Relationship with McConnell

While McCarthy deals with hard-liners day-to-day, he will also have another key relationship to manage in the coming months: one with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 

The two men and their leadership styles are like oil and water. McConnell, the record-breaking GOP leader, has led his conference with a much firmer hand in recent years, a stark contrast to McCarthy, whose path to success has centered on backslaps and fundraising prowess in lieu of a bedrock political philosophy. 

In addition, the two have clashed on a number of items in recent months, ranging from the handling of the 2022 year-end effort to fund the government to how to deal with former President Trump to Ukraine funding. 

The newly minted Speaker also opposed a number of items McConnell helped marshal through the upper chamber in the 117th Congress. Headlining those were the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill — which McConnell helped herald on Wednesday alongside President Biden in Kentucky — gun violence legislation in response to the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act to boost domestic semiconductor production. 

Nevertheless, aides for both members have said the two have a good, cordial relationship. One GOP leadership aide said in October that the two try to meet at least once every congressional work period. The Senate GOP leader also threw his support behind McCarthy to win the top job before 2022 ended.

Ukraine funding

Funding to help Ukraine in its ongoing battle with Russia is also poised to be an area of contention within the fractured House GOP conference — and among Republicans in both chambers.

The government spending bill passed by both chambers in December included $45 billion in funding to support Kyiv, buying Congress some time before it has to weigh whether to appropriate more funds for the embattled ally. But when the hour does come for that debate, the negotiations could get messy.

While the majority of the House GOP conference has expressed support for Ukraine throughout its nearly one-year conflict, a handful of conservative Republicans have expressed opposition to assisting Kyiv as the war drags on.

In October, McCarthy warned that House Republicans would not write a “blank check” to Ukraine should they take control of the chamber, and months before that, in May, 57 Republicans voted against a multibillion-dollar aid package for Ukraine in May. 

The divisions were also on full display last month when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered an address to a joint meeting of Congress, which was well-received by some Republicans and disregarded by others.

Those differences could stymie sending aid to Ukraine in the future. Some Republicans have said the U.S.-Mexico border should be prioritized more than supporting Kyiv.

The small — but outspoken — opposition to Ukraine aid in the House may also set the scene for a chamber vs. chamber battle, pitting McCarthy against McConnell, a vocal supporter of Ukraine who has thrown his weight behind the aid sent to Kyiv.

Will Democrats rescue McCarthy on must-pass bills?

McCarthy’s concession to make it easier to oust a sitting Speaker has led to concerns on both sides of the aisle that conservatives will hold that threat like a cudgel over McCarthy, deterring him from bringing must-pass legislation — things like a debt ceiling hike and government funding bills — to the floor even if it has the bipartisan support to pass.

Some moderate Republicans have countered that they can still move such bills by teaming up with Democrats on a procedural gambit, known as a discharge petition, that allows a simple majority to force legislation to the floor even over the objections of the Speaker — an idea that Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a co-chair of the moderate Problem Solvers Caucus, has promoted this week.

That scenario poses a dilemma for Democratic leaders, who would be forced to decide whether to bail out McCarthy to prevent episodes like government shutdowns or to allow them and benefit from the opportunity to highlight the dysfunction and divisions in the Republican ranks.

A similar question could accompany efforts to vacate the chair, which might provide Democrats the chance to topple McCarthy by teaming up with a small group of conservative firebrands. The fallout would again provide Democrats an occasion to focus attention on the discord within the GOP. But it would disrupt a functioning House, while lawmakers fought to fill the void, and raise the prospect that someone much more conservative — and more adverse to bipartisan compromise — could replace him.

This week’s Speakership battle may be instructive. While Republicans struggled, Democrats just steered clear. 

“All we are asking is House Republicans to get along with each other,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), the Democratic leader, said amid the GOP fight.  

Where does McCarthy take his relationship with Trump?

McCarthy’s relationship with Trump is both deep and delicate — a knotty political kinship that was only complicated by the attack on the Capitol two years ago. 

In the immediate aftermath of that rampage, McCarthy went to the House floor and declared Trump responsible for the riot. Yet just weeks later — after it was clear that Trump remained enormously popular within both the Republican base and the House GOP conference — he made the trek to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida resort, to make amends.

Now, exactly two years after the Capitol riot and McCarthy’s initial denunciation of the president, he is once again entangled with Trump.

The former president endorsed McCarthy’s Speakership leading into the midterms, despite reservations from the far right. And when McCarthy struggled this week to win over his conservative detractors, Trump intervened once more, imploring the holdouts to drop their opposition. That lobbying reportedly extended right up to the 14th ballot Friday night, which finally got McCarthy over the finish line.

The relationship could get trickier still in the months to come.

Trump has already announced his 2024 presidential bid, and one member of McCarthy’s leadership team, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), has already endorsed him. But Trump’s popularity is also waning, even among Republicans, and a series of legal and financial entanglements could drop those numbers further still. 

That complex network of political factors could put the newly seated Speaker in a difficult spot as he navigates through an election cycle when Trump, a figure famous for demanding loyalty, is on the ballot.

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