Jul 11, 2023 - Politics & Policy

McCarthy seeks to quell GOP rebellions as House returns from recess

Kevin McCarthy

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is facing his first major test since hardline GOP rebels ground the House floor to a halt last month in protest of his handling of the debt ceiling negotiations.

Why it matters: Whether — and how — McCarthy successfully shepherds the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act through the House will dictate the next phase of his speakership.

  • Up to this point, McCarthy's tenure has been broadly dominated by two conflicting dynamics: Predictions of his demise at the hands of conservative rabble-rousers and an uncanny knack for defying his doubters.
  • McCarthy advised critics Tuesday not to underestimate him as a potential crisis brewed over the NDAA, telling reporters: "This just seems like another week in Congress. I’ll get through it, we’ll figure it out as we go."

Driving the news: Right-wing Republicans are demanding votes on a range of controversial amendments to the massive defense policy bill, which has passed with bipartisan support every year for the past six decades.

  • Many of the amendments take on culture war issues that have become a cornerstone of the GOP agenda, including diversity programs and funding for gender-affirming care at the Pentagon.
  • The House Rules Committee began meeting Tuesday afternoon to decide which of the more than 1,500 amendments filed by lawmakers should receive a vote.
  • While the House Armed Services Committee advanced the NDAA with broad bipartisan support, many of the proposed floor amendments could cost the bill Democratic votes — potentially imperiling final passage.

Zoom in: One key demand is an amendment to block a Pentagon policy reimbursing service members who travel to get an abortion — a vote that could endanger vulnerable Republicans McCarthy wants to protect.

  • "For a lot of our members, some of this travel abortion language is big for them," said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), a Freedom Caucus member.
  • House Rules Committee Chair Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told reporters he would be "surprised" if the amendment didn't get a vote on the floor.

Behind the scenes: GOP leadership is trying to tamp down conservatives' expectations about how many of their culture-focused amendments will get across the finish line, according to a senior House Republican.

  • The lawmaker said, in meetings on Tuesday and throughout the week, they are trying to hammer home the question: "Is this the right place to be having this conversation, versus the Appropriations Committee? ... Is that really what we ought to be doing?"

The big picture: McCarthy on Tuesday afternoon summoned representatives from every ideological faction of the GOP conference to discuss how to stave off future rebellions.

  • Multiple lawmakers told Axios that while the NDAA fight is important, they believe the bigger threat to McCarthy's standing as speaker will be appropriations.
  • McCarthy previously had suggested that Congress would pass 12 separate appropriations bills — a process demanded by members of the Freedom Caucus — but today hinted he may have to go a different route.

What to watch: Three GOP lawmakers told Axios they believe a government shutdown in October — the result if Congress doesn't pass the appropriations bills or a continuing resolution — is more likely than not.

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