House passes congressional rules package in McCarthy’s first test as House speaker

Choosing the house speaker may have been the easy part. Now the Republicans in the House will try to govern.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) passed his first test late Monday when Republicans approved their package of rules to govern House operations, typically a routine step on Day One that stretched into the second week of the new majority. It was approved 220 to 213 on a party-line vote with one Republican opposed.

Then, later Monday, House Republicans will try to pass their first bill, legislation to cut funding meant to strengthen the Internal Revenue Service. The bill hit a snag before the vote because the budget office announced that instead of saving money, it would add $114 billion to the federal deficit.

It’s the start of a new era, with House Republicans lurching from one battle to the next, showing the challenges McCarthy faces in leading a rebellious majority, as well as the limits of President Biden’s remaining agenda on Capitol Hill.

With soaring ambitions for a hard-right conservative agenda and only a narrow grip on the majority, allowing only a few holdouts to stall proceedings, Republicans are rushing headlong into an uncertain, volatile start to the new session. They want to investigate Biden, cut federal spending and strengthen competition with China.

But first McCarthy, backed by former President Trump, must show the Republican majority can keep up with the basics of governing.

“You know, it’s a little more difficult when you go into the majority and maybe the margins aren’t high,” McCarthy said after winning the speaker’s vote. “Having the disruption now really built the trust in each other and learned to work together.”

When McCarthy opened the House as new speaker on Monday, Republicans launched debate on the Rules package, a hard-fought, 55-page document McCarthy negotiated with conservative holdouts to win over their votes to make him Representative.

Central to the package is a provision sought by the conservative Freedom Caucus that reinstates a longstanding rule that allows any lawmaker to make a motion to “vacate the chair” — a vote to remove the speaker. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi had abolished the rule when Democrats took charge in 2019 because conservatives had held it over former Republican speakers as a threat.

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) said the rules are about “getting back to basics.”

But that’s not the only change. There are other provisions that conservatives extracted from McCarthy that weaken the power of the speaker’s office and give more control over legislative activity to rank-and-file lawmakers, especially the far-right lawmakers who won concessions.

Republicans allow more Freedom Caucus lawmakers on the rules committee that shapes legislative debates. These members promise more open and free-flowing debates and insist on 72 hours to read the legislation before votes.

But it’s an open debate whether the changes will make the House more transparent in its operations or stall it, as happened last week when McCarthy battled through four days and 14 failed ballots before finally winning the speaker’s gavel.

Many Republicans defended the standoff over the speaker’s club, which was finally resolved in the midnight hours of Saturday morning by the thinnest of votes — one of the longest speaker’s race showdowns in US history.

“A little temporary conflict is needed in this city to stop this city from rolling over the American people,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said over the weekend on CNN.

On Monday, Roy praised the new rules, saying he could file a motion “right now” to require a speaker vote — as has been the case throughout much of the House’s history.

But heading into Monday night’s vote on the rules package, at least two other Republicans raised objections to the backroom deals McCarthy had cut, making it unclear whether there would be enough GOP support for passage, as all Democrats are expected to oppose it. In the end, only Republican Representative Tony Gonzales of Texas voted against.

Democrats denounced the new rules as complying with the demands of the far right in line with Trump’s Make American Great Again agenda.

“These rules are not a serious attempt to govern,” said Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee. Rather, he said, it is a “ransom from the far right”.

Rep. Ritchie Torres, DN.Y., focused his criticism on the GOP’s so-called Holman Rule, which would allow Congress to claw back the pay of individual federal employees: “This is no way to govern.”

McCarthy has a slim 222-seat Republican majority, meaning on any given vote he can only lose four GOP opponents, or the legislation would fail if all Democrats oppose it.

The new rules make McCarthy’s job even tougher. For example, Republicans are ending the proxy vote that Democrats under former Speaker Nancy Pelosi instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic. That means McCarthy must demand greater attendance and participation at every vote, with almost no absences allowed for family emergencies or other circumstances.

“Members of Congress need to show up and get back to work,” said Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La.

With the Senate still narrowly held by Democrats, the divided Congress could still be a time for bipartisan deals. Monday saw a group of Republican and Democratic senators heading to the southern US border with Mexico as they sought to develop an immigration overhaul to stem the flow of migrants.

But more often, a divided Congress creates gridlock.

Republicans have been here before, just over a decade ago, when the tea party class swept to a majority in 2011, ousting Pelosi from the speaker’s office and rushing into an era of hardball politics that shut down the government and threatened a federal debt default. .

McCarthy was a key player in those struggles, having recruited the tea party class when he was the House GOP’s campaign manager. He tried and failed to take over for Republican John Boehner in 2015 when the embattled House speaker abruptly resigned rather than face a potential vote by conservatives on his ouster.

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Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Hope Yen contributed to this report.

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