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What Kevin McCarthy’s concessions to right-wingers would mean for a functioning Congress

They’d make it harder for him to run the chamber — and perhaps harder for Republicans to hold on to it.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy attends a House Republican Conference news conference.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Continuing his desperate quest to line up the votes to become speaker of the House after two days of falling short, Kevin McCarthy offered new concessions to rebellious Republicans Wednesday night — and by Thursday, it looked like those could produce a deal with some of them, according to Politico and The Washington Post.

Progress for McCarthy wasn’t showing in the vote tallies after the 11th failed speaker vote Thursday night. But some of the holdouts have spoken positively about the continuing talks, in what’s basically the first good news for McCarthy’s prospects all week. Though in continuing bad news, some other holdouts reiterated that they’ll never support him. McCarthy needs to win over 16 of the 20 rebel Republicans to be elected speaker, and it is unclear how many of the objectors are truly motivated by procedural complaints rather than a simple desire to derail the basic work of Congress.

Substantively, McCarthy’s concessions fall on a spectrum from unimportant to potentially quite important indeed. But they all share a similar theme: They’d make it harder for him to run the House as he sees fit, and perhaps harder for Republicans to hold on to it as well. Here’s what some of them are.

1) An easy trigger for a no-confidence vote in McCarthy’s leadership

For most of its history, the House gave any one member the power to file a privileged “motion to vacate the chair,” which would force the House to vote on whether to depose the speaker. And for most of that history, nobody used it (except Republican Speaker Joseph Cannon, who filed one against himself in 1910 for procedural reasons). But in 2015, then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) filed one to try to push out Speaker John Boehner, and though it never came to a vote, it was one of the factors that spurred Boehner’s resignation that year.

Democrats then greatly weakened this power when they took over the House in 2019, requiring not just one member but half of a party’s members to advance this motion.

Conservatives wanted to roll back this change, but McCarthy was initially reluctant to fully do so, offering instead to require five members. But Wednesday night, per Politico, he gave in and said he’d let one member do it.

All this matters because the dynamics of the speaker election, as we’re currently seeing, can give stubborn rebels great leverage over party leaders. With the full House voting and strong internal pressures against seeking Democratic votes (which aren’t on offer anyway), McCarthy needs 218 of 222 Republicans to win the speakership, so any five Republicans can block him. But once the speaker is elected, the hardliners lose that leverage — unless there’s an easy way to force another speaker election.

That’s why many have compared this concession to McCarthy offering hardliners a gun pointed at his own head. He can’t govern as he sees fit; he has to constantly please 218 of 222 House Republicans or else just five of them could approve a motion to vacate the chair and bring us back to endless speaker election Groundhog Day. The implication here is that if McCarthy cuts a deal with Democrats to fund the government or raise the debt ceiling that even a handful of conservatives detest, they have the power to put him through the wringer.

Still, there’s a reason almost nobody has ever used this in the House’s history — it would still take 218 votes to elect someone else speaker. Additionally, if McCarthy is put through this after cutting a deal with Democrats, it’s possible Democrats could then save him from a hard-right revolt in return.

2) Controversial conservative bills could get a floor vote

According to the Washington Post, on Wednesday McCarthy “relented on allowing floor votes to institute term limits on members and to enact specific border policy legislation,” which some holdouts were demanding.

This is really not a big deal. They are show votes that, if they do pass the House, will be dead on arrival in the Senate.

Now, McCarthy would likely prefer to avoid those votes because they could make his vulnerable members’ reelections — and thus holding the House — a bit more difficult. Republicans in districts Biden won might prefer not having to vote on a draconian immigration crackdown bill, when a “no” could stoke a primary challenge and a “yes” could alienate general election voters. And a term limits bill opens up hypocrisy attacks against members who stick around longer than the proposed limit. Still, these probably won’t matter all that much.

3) Opening up the appropriations process

Congress funds the federal government by passing appropriations bills, and if they’re not passed on time, the government shuts down. In theory, there should be 12 separate appropriations bills crafted to cover different departments of the government and voted on separately. But the most common recent practice under both parties has been for Congress to instead run up to the deadline, extend the deadline once or more via a “continuing resolution” keeping the government open at status quo funding levels, and then pass one massive “omnibus” bill funding everything (as just happened last month).

Conservatives who want bigger cuts to government spending have long griped about how much they hate the omnibus process, and, per Politico Playbook, here’s what they might win from McCarthy:

The brewing deal includes a promise for standalone votes on each of the 12 yearly appropriations bills, which would be considered under what is known as an “open rule,” allowing floor amendments to be offered by any lawmaker.

In theory, this would be a big deal and a dramatic change to how Congress has recently worked. In practice, the main effect would probably be to make a prolonged government shutdown or at least a series of continuing resolutions preserving the status quo more likely.

Putting together and passing 12 appropriations bills through the House would be quite difficult and time-consuming under the best of circumstances. If the goal is to get 218 of 222 Republicans to agree on government funding bills, that would be even more difficult. If it’s even possible to come up with such bills, they’d surely be quite conservative. And more amendments make things more chaotic. But then an agreement would have to be reached with the Democrat-controlled Senate as well before anything could be sent to President Biden’s desk for his signature. And remember, all this has to be done by September 30 or else a government shutdown ensues.

So what happens when that deadline looms and the work isn’t done? A continuing resolution has been the typical answer, preserving the status quo while work and negotiations continue. But House conservatives might not go for that and might prefer a shutdown fight instead.

4) A separate vote on earmarks

Republicans have also been struggling with their internal psychodrama over earmarks (specific projects requested by individual members of Congress and included in a larger spending bill). They have typically proven quite handy for congressional leaders trying to line up votes on, say, various appropriations bills. But some of the projects have seemed absurd, unnecessary, or corrupt, and the last time the GOP took the House from Democrats, in 2011, they banned earmarks, after endlessly decrying them in the midterms campaign.

But in 2021, House Republicans voted to allow their members to ask for earmarks again (since the Democrat-controlled House had brought them back). And after the midterms, last November, Republicans voted in an internal meeting to keep earmarks around, 158 to 52. The anti-earmark fever has clearly broken in the post-Trump era.

Still, some staunch opponents of the practice remain in the House GOP. And on Wednesday, according to Politico, McCarthy made “a concession to carve out any earmarks included in those [appropriations] packages for separate votes, though it’s unclear if they’d be voted on as one package or separately.” That change could also make those appropriations bills harder to pass.

5) Adding Freedom Caucus members to the House Rules Committee

The Rules Committee determines what will come to the House floor, when it will be brought, and how debate and amendments over it will proceed. In recent decades, it has essentially done the bidding of the speaker of the House — indeed, it’s one of the main sources of the speaker’s power over the chamber.

So handing over some committee seats to firebrand conservatives who have a tendency to try and muck up party leaders’ agenda would be quite a change. But per Politico, McCarthy “is prepared to” give the Freedom Caucus (the main organizing body of the House’s far right) two seats on the Rules Committee.

Now, in the previous Congress, under a similarly sized majority, Democrats allotted their party nine seats on the Rules Committee, and Republicans four seats. So if McCarthy sticks to that math, giving Republican hardliners two Rules seats might not be such a big deal — they couldn’t block anything even if they united with the minority, since the vote would be 7-6. According to Politico, though, “there is talk” about giving a third seat to another member aligned with the right. If he acquiesces, McCarthy may have basically handed over control of one of the speaker’s most powerful tools to hardliners.

6) Giving outside groups free rein in safe open primaries

Conservative activists have long resented the tendency of party leaders to try to support candidates they see as more “electable” — who are often more mainstream or moderate — in Republican primaries. Relatedly, party leaders have long resented conservative activists’ tendency to back extreme or controversial GOP primary candidates who are then at risk of losing the general election.

So it was interesting news on Wednesday night that the Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group that has long squabbled with GOP leaders over these primaries, announced an agreement with the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McCarthy. McCarthy’s allies pledged in a statement that they would “not spend in any open-seat primaries in safe Republican districts.”

Basically, this is a concession to the right that they’ll have free rein to back whoever they want in these contests without the establishment getting involved (though the super PAC can still spend to support incumbents or a favored candidate in a swing district primary).

But a safe seat can become competitive if the GOP nominee is too extreme or controversial, as Roy Moore found out in Alabama’s 2017 Senate special election. Candidate quality does matter, as Republicans found out when several of their extreme or scandal-plagued candidates lost House and Senate races in the most recent midterms. So this could hurt McCarthy’s chances of holding on to his slim margin in the House in 2024 at least somewhat. He simply doesn’t have many seats to lose.

Update, January 6, 9:10 a.m.: The story was updated to reflect the current number of times the House has voted.