Dec 20, 2022 - Politics & Policy

GOP senators brush off "silly" McCarthy budget threat

Photo illustration of Kevin McCarthy holding his head beneath an angry elephant.

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Senate Republicans on Tuesday shrugged off a vow from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to block the legislative priorities of any GOP senator who votes for the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill.

Why it matters: Senate Republicans are saying what their House counterparts can't — that McCarthy's tough talk is intended to win over the conservatives whose votes he needs to become speaker and that he won't follow through.

What they're saying: In interviews with Axios, nearly a dozen Senate Republicans said McCarthy's threat is not to be taken seriously on their side of the Capitol.

  • “He’s focused on being speaker, and if I were in his shoes that’s what I would be focused on, trying to get enough votes. But I don't think that intimidates anyone," Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the top negotiator on the omnibus, told Axios.
  • "We're enduring the silly season of the campaign," said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). "[For] most of us that's over after you get elected, but he's running for speaker of the House, so the silliness is still evident."
  • "If you're in the minority, you can complain all you want, but there's nothing you can do to change it," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Axios.
  • "They've got their own issues that they've got to work through their way," said Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). "But I think here [in the Senate] … that's probably not going to have a big impact on vote count."

Driving the news: More than 20 GOP senators voted Tuesday night to begin debate on the omnibus, a sign that the bill easily has enough support to pass a final vote. Every senator Axios spoke to said McCarthy's threat won't sway any votes.

Yes, but: Most Senate Republicans aren't faulting McCarthy, whose speakership they still see as a necessary bulwark against Democrats' legislative agenda.

  • Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told Axios: "I think that's an idle threat, but I hope Kevin becomes speaker."
  • "McCarthy needs to be in a position to get as many votes as he can," said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). "He's got to say that to keep his people together. ... There are some folks in there that would vote against him just because he didn't make a strong enough statement."

Asked if he supports McCarthy for speaker, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said at a press conference: "Absolutely, I'm pulling for Kevin. I hope he makes it."

Context: In a letter to Senate Republicans on Monday, 13 current and incoming House conservatives — including the five "Never Kevin" members and other key undecideds in the speaker race — issued their threat.

  • "We are obliged to inform you that if any omnibus passes in the remaining days of this Congress, we will oppose and whip opposition to any legislative priority of those senators who vote for this bill — including the Republican leader," they wrote.
  • McCarthy endorsed the letter Tuesday morning, tweeting: "Agreed. Except no need to whip — when I’m Speaker, their bills will be dead on arrival in the House if this nearly $2 [trillion] monstrosity is allowed to move forward."

What we're hearing: Behind the scenes, McCarthy doesn't want the headache of having to draft a whole new budget and engage in fiscal brinksmanship with Senate Democrats and the White House.

  • Senators know it too. "We're going to do our best to help him get into a position so he can actually accomplish some things," said Rounds.
  • "He can't say it, but we can: it'd be much better, and he'll be much more effective, if we give him a clean slate."
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