House GOP Off to Bumpy Start Slowed by Debt Limit, Party Rifts

  • Republicans have passed fraction of agenda in early months
  • Leaders criticized for not moving fast enough on Biden probes

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House Republicans emerged from their first 100 days struggling to carry out much of their agenda while facing debt limit and spending showdowns that could make or break their ability to hold their majority.

The past few months have tested Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) strategy of ensuring all factions of his conference have a voice in crafting legislation and messaging. His more carrots and fewer sticks approach has helped Republicans pass education and energy measures. They also claimed victory after forcing Biden to accept their rejection of D.C. crime code revision.

Yet the biggest hurdles lie ahead. House leaders have made little headway on their pledge to link raising the debt limit to dramatically reducing federal spending. Despite high-profile trips by GOP members to the southwest border, the party hasn’t coalesced behind a plan to curb illegal immigration and beef up border security.

Republicans are in the midst of a bevy of oversight investigations focused on the administration but lawmakers caution they need to balance probes into Biden’s family ties with issues of broad public concern like the recent closure of several banks and train derailments. Those investigations are only beginning.

The leadership’s ability to overcome these fiscal, legislative and oversight challenges will be key if they hope to retain control of the House and expand their narrow majority in 2024.

Photographer: Valerie Plesch/Bloomberg
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) holds a March 30 event marking House passage of sweeping energy bill.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a conservative lawmaker who initially opposed McCarthy’s bid for speaker, said while House Republicans had notched several wins, the “success of this Congress will be judged based on whether or not we cut spending, secure the border, and limit the out of control executive branch.”

“The bill is coming due,” Roy said. “The check’s at the table and it’s about time we figured out what we’re gonna do with it.”

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) said Republicans face “a tremendous challenge in prioritizing all of the oversight responsibilities that we have.”

Republicans are more optimistic after the rocky start of the speaker’s race that was decided only after multiple votes, said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), a McCarthy ally. The conference is communicating more, he said, and addressing most issues with legislation before bills come to the floor for a vote.

“After the difficult first week, I think people could have assumed that there could be a dumpster fire almost every week,” he said. “The reality is, there haven’t been any dumpster fires.”

Republicans, however, are still grappling with managing a narrow majority. McCarthy has attempted to give members more of a say by allowing them to offer more amendments to bills. The perils of that strategy were on display last month when Republicans voted on one of their signature measures (H.R. 5) on parents’ ability to get information on their childrens’ schools.

Hardline conservatives initially threatened to vote against the bill for not going far enough. The addition of amendments on transgender students won several members over, but it also led Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), a moderate Republican from a district Biden carried, to oppose the bill.

Ultimately, five Republicans voted against the bill, which only passed due to absences on the Democratic side.

Photographer: Susan Walsh/AP Photo/Bloomberg
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.) said she was disappointed the House hasn’t yet passed her bill on prosecutor reporting.

Republicans have also struggled on narrower bills. Of 11 “ready to pass” pieces of legislation Republicans teed up at the start of the year (H. Res. 5), five of the measures have yet to be considered.

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.), said she was disappointed that her bill (H.R. 27) that would require certain prosecutors to report data on their outcomes, has yet to pass but said she stressed the importance of having a committee vet a measure first before it comes to the floor. She contrasted the current GOP approach to Democratic leadership last Congess that she argued often bypassed committees and forced members to vote on the floor.

“How many times did Democrats have to hold their nose and vote for a bill they didn’t like?” she asked in an interview. “We’re not running the place like that. We’re running it like an actual representative body.”

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) said the conference was proceeding at an “appropriate pace,” even if parts of the agenda remain stalled. “Stay tuned,” he said. “Two years is a long time.”

Debt Limit

Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), who heads the Republican Study Committee, said while McCarthy has so far done a good job of listening to members and passing messaging bills, the GOP’s biggest hurdles remain.

“The real pressure’s coming up now with trying to get the debt limit debate figured out,” he said. “And certainly getting a budget on the floor.”

House Republicans have called for spending cuts as part of a debt-limit deal, aiming for caps on discretionary spending, clawbacks of unspent Covid funds, stricter welfare work requirements, and energy-permitting measures. They quickly retreated on initial suggestions by some members during the campaign to seek changes to Social Security or Medicare in a debt-limit measure.

McCarthy broadly listed the Republican priorities for a debt-limit deal in bullet-point form in a March 28 letter to Biden but Republicans haven’t rallied around a more specific plan. Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) said in late February that his budget resolution — a framework for fiscal priorities that’s technically supposed to be adopted by mid April— could be done within a month. He has yet to release the resolution, saying debt-limit talks have to happen first.

McCarthy has said that if Biden doesn’t negotiate, he’ll release a bill with specific Republicans’ demands but has been vague on timing.

“We’re out of session right now,” he said in an interview on Bloomberg TV’s “Balance of Power” last week. “When we get back we might make some news.”

The lack of a budget blueprint underscores the difficulty of getting all Republicans on the same page about potential spending cuts, said former Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.).

“If it was an easy document to put out and have consensus, it would be out by now,” he said.

BUDGET BRIEFING: Debt Limit Talks Founder as GOP Waits on Budget

Republican divisions are hampering progress on other priorities. A package of border security and immigration bills Republicans are teeing up for passage next month is already falling victim to in-party fighting.

GOP Divisions Surface as House Leaders Push Border Legislation

“We’ll get it through committee and we’ll see what happens,” said Roy, who is working to get his bill on asylum (H.R. 29) in the package. “But let’s be very clear, we’re not going to pass so-called border security legislation that doesn’t actually secure the friggin border.”

Photographer: Nathan Howard/Bloomberg
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) is working to get his bill on asylum into an immigration and border security package

Investigation Oversight

In addition to legislation, a key promise of House Republicans is investigating the Biden administration on a range of issues. Republican have held dozens of hearings including ones focused on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the origins of Covid-19 and concerns about the treatment of parents who have protested school board meetings – three areas the party highlighted in its “Commitment to America” plan issued during the campaign.

Davis said oversight is a key area “where voters will judge Republicans in how successful they are in living up to their promises.”

While investigations are still in their early stages, some conservative commentators have already criticized lawmakers for not being more aggressive in going after Biden and uncovering little new information.

Lawmakers have pushed back, pointing to behind the scenes work including requests for data, subpoenas of officials, and depositions that are helping build their case.

But even if lawmakers don’t find a smoking gun that could imperil Biden’s 2024 bid, they still will get credit for doing the investigations said Kevin Kosar, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Kosar said the average voter likely isn’t looking at Republicans to “take out the president.”

“When it comes to congressional oversight, I think they’re looking to see the various anger buttons are being pushed, things they are mad about,” he said. “Help vent our spleens.”

Trump’s Shadow

Another challenge for Republicans is communicating their accomplishments when, once again, former President Donald Trump is dominating the news. House Republicans were forced to spend time at their recent issues retreat in Florida responding to questions about his impending indictment that he allegedly paid hush money to bury damaging information about an affair before the 2016 election and they will face more queries when Congress returns next week.

“Donald Trump, truthfully, takes a lot of the oxygen out of the room,” said Davis, who lost his primary to a Trump-backed incumbent, Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.).

It’s impossible for Republican candidates, regardless of where they run, to avoid questions about the twice-impeached president, Davis said. That’s a particularity acute problem for lawmakers who won districts Biden carried.

Davis said his advice to candidates is to “keep your focus on things that you can control.”

“There’s no one more uncontrollable than Donald Trump,” he said.

With assistance from Jack Fitzpatrick

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at; George Cahlink at

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