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Kevin McCarthy Is Losing His Grip on House Republicans—and Power

The far right thinks it has a “power-sharing agreement” to control the House, a terrifying prospect.

Kevin McCarthy buries his face in his fist in frustration last January.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Kevin McCarthy, co-speaker of the House

Kevin McCarthy has lost control of House Republicans. That’s one takeaway, at least, from the truce the embattled speaker of the House reached with the Freedom Caucus earlier this week. Yes, that deal—spurred by a rebellion from McCarthy’s right flank in response to the budget deal he reached with President Joe Biden late last month—technically means that the House can return to normal business. (Normal business, in this instance, means symbolic votes about gas stoves—literally.) But it also spells serious trouble, both for McCarthy and the country.

Here’s how we got here. The Freedom Caucus was furious about the budget deal, which they felt didn’t go far enough toward starving the federal government of the money it needs to function. Because the GOP’s House majority is so small, a tiny fraction of Republicans can band together to stop the body from functioning. That’s exactly what happened last week, when Matt Gaetz and his allies on the right took to the House floor to side with Democrats on a series of procedural votes, grinding the chamber to a halt. “House Leadership couldn’t Hold the Line,” Gaetz tweeted last week. “Now we Hold the Floor.”

Their blockade has ended, sort of. Earlier this week, Gaetz teased the relationship between the Freedom Caucus and McCarthy as a “power-sharing agreement”—a revealing and troubling concept. “Here’s what everyone understood: The power-sharing agreement that we entered into in January with Speaker McCarthy must be renegotiated and he understood that we understood that,” Gaetz told reporters. That is, to be fair, not far off from the terms of the deal reached between McCarthy and Gaetz’s flock at the time: McCarthy gave the Freedom Caucus what amounted to a veto over nearly all legislation brought to the floor. Then McCarthy bypassed the Freedom Caucus in his deal with Biden because he had to: There was no other way the country could have avoided default if he hadn’t, and no deal with the Freedom Caucus’s approval could have passed. But, having been burned, the rebel group is reminding McCarthy that they can sink his speakership whenever they feel like it. That’s terrifying.

For one thing, they are not even pretending to act in good faith. Their position is that they will rebel and shut down the normal functioning of the House of Representatives whenever they feel like it. “The only thing we agreed to is that we’ll sit down and talk more of the process,” McCarthy said. Gaetz had a slightly different spin, ominously saying If there’s not a renegotiated power-sharing agreement, then perhaps we’ll be back here next week.” (He did, helpfully if not convincingly, add, “That’s not our goal.”)

This is, to put it lightly, not a good way to run a chamber of the legislature. But McCarthy doesn’t have another choice if he wants to remain speaker. “I’ve got serious concerns as we go into the appropriations process about how antics like this taking down a rule can impact the ability for us to do our basic job of funding the government,” Arkansas Republican Steve Womack told The New York Times last week. “It was already going to be a pretty heavy lift, but it is a lift that is going to be made heavier if this is what we are going to be facing.”

And that’s where things really get complicated. The Freedom Caucus is eyeing the fall, when federal spending bills come up again and they can really flex their muscles. They will try to cut spending even further than what McCarthy and Biden already agreed upon—a move that is unlikely to get support from Democrats or the Senate. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to push military spending even higher than it is now, meaning that the two chambers are vastly misaligned. That could ultimately result in a government shutdown, as my colleague Grace Segers reported Wednesday.

As The American Prospect’s David Dayen wrote earlier this week, that could ultimately be good for Democrats. “Historically government shutdowns have rebounded back on Republicans, who eventually crawl back to the table without getting much in return,” Dayen writes. “And the trigger that would slash defense spending in particular is a powerful spur to stick to the demand to keep to the promises in the debt ceiling deal.” That strikes me as correct: The disarray in the House favors Democrats—but a lot can happen between now and October.

For now, though, it’s clear that McCarthy has lost control of his caucus, to the extent that he ever had it. It’s been a shocking turnaround. The deal he made with Biden should have cemented his status as speaker of the House. It was one that many—myself very much included—doubted he could pull off. But he did, holding his caucus together, barely, to pass a symbolic (and draconian) budget that forced negotiations with the administration. Now, however, his speakership is hanging by a thread and the House’s most extreme members are reminding him that they hold his fate in their hands. That could be fodder for plenty of schadenfreude—if, of course, it doesn’t lead to a damaging shutdown.