In an almost forgotten piece of marbled real estate at the Capitol, the Kevin McCarthy era is taking shape in Congress.
It was here that the new speaker of the House of Representatives chatted last week with Donald Trump Jr. on the former president’s son’s podcast, and their laughter spilled into the halls behind closed doors. And it was in this modest outpost, with its grand view of the National Mall and easy proximity to the action on the House floor, that the Republican leader from California had met with his lieutenants brokering deals in the grueling race to become speaker.
Away from the glare of the speaker’s official office, McCarthy pursues some of the most exciting but also difficult leadership tasks. Yet McCarthy is also confronting the limits of his tenuous grip on power, as promises of a new style of running the House run into the harsh reality of government.
This past week, an immigration bill that was supposed to be easy work for a Republican Party intent on sealing the U.S. border with Mexico was shelved for quick action, thrown back to committees for amendments.
A Republican proposal for a 23% national sales tax to replace the income tax rose and quickly fell out of favor, becoming a punchline for President Joe Biden’s attack on extreme elements in the GOP.
McCarthy obtained two prominent Democrats, Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell of California, from the House Intelligence Committee, but his promise to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., of the House Foreign Affairs Committee faced opposition from a pair of Republicans.
“Watch,” McCarthy told The Associated Press as he stormed the halls, signaling he had the votes in hand to oust Somali-born Omar.
Three weeks into the new Republican majority, the risks to McCarthy’s leadership style are clearly taking hold: In the interest of opening up the legislative process, with more seats at the table for far-right lawmakers, the GOP agenda will be exposed to protracted debates and delays — and the chance for nothing to be done at all.
McCarthy appeared upbeat as he left the Trump podcast, brushing off scraps over the immigration bill and others as part of the process of his bottom-up approach to governing.
“I don’t see it as a risk,” McCarthy said.
“Say you passed the bill early here, but it’s just not perfect,” he said. “I want to get it right.”
So far, Republicans have been able to get about 10 pieces of legislation through the House, including one abortion-related measure that was a party priority. Some other bills and resolutions had broad bipartisan support, largely symbolic actions including one to praise Iranian human rights protesters.
But several of the top proposals Republicans lined up for fast-track passage as part of their rulemaking package have stalled amid differences between the hard-right Freedom Caucus and pragmatic conservatives. As McCarthy celebrated his birthday with a visit from Elon Musk at the Capitol, lawmakers were engaged in a two-day debate on a routine oil-and-gas leasing bill.
“At some point they have to go up to the bar, make a decision and leave,” the rep said. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the veteran Democratic leader and former House Whip.
As part of the opening of the House process, lawmakers on Thursday dove into a freewheeling debate over an oil and gas leasing bill that would limit the president’s ability to tap the strategic petroleum reserve, as Biden did during soaring fuel prices, without first developing a Department of Energy plans to increase resource production on federal lands.
One of the first amendments came from Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Georgia Republican who used her precious few minutes of debate to also mention that she was the first in Congress to introduce legislation calling for Biden’s impeachment.
“The people’s house has been broken for too long,” she said, praising the new system.
But House Republicans acknowledge some grumbling from their constituents at home in the slow start to their new majority. The protracted speaker race took up the first week of the new Congress, as McCarthy endured 15 votes before finally grabbing the gavel.
Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, said he heard from a caller to his office demanding to know why House Republicans had not yet opened an investigation into Biden’s son Hunter.
“Everybody gets so emotional,” Nehls said.
“Let’s just breathe a little. Take a step back,” he said. “Let’s develop the situation and see what comes out of these committees.”
But the challenges facing the House Republican majority are as much philosophical as organizational.
The immigration bill proposed by Rep. Chip Roy of Texas was supposed to be a slight boost, centered in the GOP’s policy wheelhouse on priorities cracking down on migrants at the border.
Pushed by the Freedom Caucus member, the legislation would require the secretary of Homeland Security to deny conditional entry to the United States to migrants, including those seeking asylum, without valid documents, instead of detaining them.
The immigration bill had received the green light in the House Rules package for action, but it faced opposition from the pragmatic wing of conservative Republicans from the Main Street caucus.
Rep. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a former chairman of that group, which calls itself conservatives who want to govern, said he and others were tapped by colleagues to alert McCarthy’s team that some had concerns with the immigration law as well as proposed legislation for a national sales tax.
“These things had to go through committee,” Bacon told reporters at the Capitol.
Still, McCarthy’s efforts to open up the legislative process have drawn interest from Democrats as well as Republicans, as lawmakers offered dozens of changes to the oil and gas drilling bill in a first test of the new system.
“We’re about to do something we haven’t done in a long time,” announced Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., who presided over the chamber late Thursday, as he gave the start to the fast-track vote. “Two minute votes!”
Cheers erupted from the lawmakers.
Twenty-four amendment votes later, they were closed at noon.
Lawmakers were back at it Friday, another dozen amendments up for a quick two-minute vote before Republicans pushed the oil and gas bill to passage, almost strictly along party lines with only one Democrat joining.
But the bill has almost no chance of becoming law.
It is unlikely to be considered in the Senate. And Biden has threatened a veto.