Rep. Kevin McCarthy has become Speaker of the Housebut he has only done so by offering a series of concessions which effectively mean that his ability as a speaker will be under constant threat from his own caucus.
McCarthy’s agreement to undermine the speaker’s role risks leading to an extreme deadlock within the GOP ranks. But it could also present an opening for Democrats. If far-right lawmakers in the GOP deliver on their promises to uphold key spending and debt-ceiling legislation, Republicans may have to rely on help from Democrats to get any bill across the line — a dynamic Democrat could capitalize.
“The deal is, if they’re going to get things done, they’re going to have to work with us,” says Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), the top Democrat on the House Rules committee. “And we’re not going to be a cheap date.”
Given Republicans’ narrow 222-person majority, they can’t really get through much if they lose more than five votes in their own conference. Since conservatives have pledged to block key bills, such as a debt ceiling increase, in order to get the spending cuts they want, Republicans will likely need Democratic votes to keep functions running and essential government services if they are to do so.
Moreover, given the number of Freedom Caucus members added to the House Rules Committee, Democrats could theoretically join conservatives on the panel to block or slow down bills favored by the GOP leadership in the House.
The situation gives Democrats more leverage to make their demands, if the Republican leadership is actually interested in doing something about it. Of course, there’s a high chance they aren’t, a reality Democrats are also bracing themselves to face.
“I think there’s an opportunity,” says Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), a member of the Rules Committee. “But it’s just such an unusual time — and it’s so hard for so many of them to reach across the aisle.”
The GOP may need Democratic help on key bills
Republicans can only lose a handful of votes before any bill falls short of the simple majority it needs to advance, which gives Democrats an opening.
In the last decade or so, there have been times when House Republicans have relied on Democratic support when their conference has similarly fractured. In 2011 And 2014For example, Republican House Speaker John Boehner needed Democratic votes to pass spending bills to fund the government.
That same dynamic could play out this term, with Republicans relying on Democratic help to make up for the support they lack in their own caucus. “These people who are causing all this nonsense right now – you can’t work with them. They can never get to yes,” McGovern said.
Ultimately, House Republicans will need a majority to pass bills including a debt ceiling increase, spending legislation, the agriculture bill — which authorizes many Department of Agriculture programs — and a defense bill establishing funding for the military. If conservative members withhold their support for such policies, the GOP would not be able to pass the bills on its own. If they are unable to do so, they risk scenarios such as the country defaulting on its national debt and resulting economic crisis, as well as a potentially interminable government shutdown.
As Republicans have shown in the past, after the US nearly defaulted on its debt in 2011, and when went under arrest in 2013, group members may very well agree with those scenarios unfolding. In both cases, however, House Republicans also garnered considerable public backlash for their role in causing these debacles, and eventually past agreements that have been achieved with democratic support.
As Vox’s Andrew Prokop notedHowever, any Republican attempt to reach the altar in this term could also prompt a backlash from the conservative wing, which could threaten the speaker as a result. As part of his bid to be speaker, McCarthy reportedly offered a rule change that would allow any Republican to force a “no confidence” vote.
Known as the motion to vacate, this would allow a single member to call a vote on the speaker’s expulsion if they were unhappy with how they were handling a particular bill or issue. Theoretically, a single far-right member could punish any collaboration with Democrats by filing a motion to vacate, forcing a vote against the spokesperson. However, a majority of members should still agree to remove it. Some Democrats have warned that the rule changes McCarthy agreed to become speaker could dampen cooperation for fear of reprisals.
“It seems like they might need to get more in the middle to do something. But I’m not sure that giving more guns to the most extreme people is going to further that goal,” Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA), a member of the Rules Committee, told Vox.
Republican concessions could mean complete dysfunction
The best case for Democrats is that they are able to put some of their priorities into legislation to be passed. But, as Scanlon hinted, there’s also a worst-case scenario: a total standoff.
In addition to the change on the eviction motion, which could cause the GOP leadership to shy away from the bipartisan deal, McCarthy’s concessions included adding more Freedom Caucus members to the Rules Committee, which plays a key role in deciding which bills get to the word and what amendments to consider. If three ultra-conservative Republicans were added to that committee, something McCarthy agreed tothey would be able to delay bills and promote more extreme versions of policies.
This has led some Democrats to fear that these changes will allow the Republicans’ conservative side to use the panel for obstruction. “We have a small faction that basically holds Congress hostage,” says Scanlon. “Many of the rule changes proposed by this type of extreme faction have the same goal.”
Representative Norma Torres (D-CA), a member of the Rules Committee, notes that conservatives could hinder the process on bills by forcing debate on amendments, whether or not they are relevant to the legislation in question. “It’s impossible to legislate from that perspective,” she said.
Interestingly, Democrats could also use potential rule changes to their advantage, argues Daniel Schuman, a policy expert at the progressive advocacy group Demand Progress. While Democrats aren’t able to use the motion to vacate in the same way Republicans do, they would be able to offer their own amendments to bills such as appropriations legislation if those changes come to fruition.
“They’re creating a lot of veto points for legislation and more opportunities to change that legislation,” Schuman says. “And those opportunities, in many circumstances, will be available to all members, not just Republican members.”
Also, as Prokop explained, nominations of Freedom Caucus members to the Rules Committee could give Democrats a chance to form unexpected coalitions and give them clout. Previously, the Rules Commission consisted of 13 members, nine in the majority and four in the minority. If McCarthy used the same breakdown and gave three seats to Freedom Caucus members, there would be nine Republicans, three of whom would be hardline conservatives, along with four Democrats. In that case, Democrats and hardline conservatives could theoretically work together to form a seven-person majority.
It remains to be seen how likely any kind of bipartisan collaboration is, given how polarized the two sides are. Republicans’ narrow margins, however, could lead Democrats to use their numbers in interesting ways.
“The Freedom Caucus could build an alliance with some or all Democrats, the McCarthy faction could build an alliance with some or all Democrats, or the McCarthy faction and the Freedom Caucus could build an alliance with each other,” says Schuman.
Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries speaks on Jan. 6, 2023, during a memorial service marking the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Nathan Howard/Getty Images