McCarthy Backers Warn Conservative Rule Changes at Risk

  • Proposed rules make it easier for members to oust speaker
  • Other members push back against Freedom Caucus demands

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Backers of Rep. Kevin McCarthy are insisting a proposed House rules package for the new Congress, loaded with conservative priorities, would fall apart if the GOP conference doesn’t elect the California Republican speaker.

The proposed changes, released Sunday night, would give far more power to rank-and-file members in a late bid from McCarthy to wrangle the 218 votes he needs to be speaker.

With less than 24 hours before the new Congress convenes at noon Tuesday to vote on a speaker, McCarthy continues to scramble for votes. He has spent the past week working the phones and holding meetings with members in attempts to shore up their support — without any major shifts.

And in a bid to lock down votes, centrists and mainstream conservatives backing McCarthy are increasingly using the rules proposal as ultimatum to their hard-right colleagues. Elect McCarthy speaker, they argue, or they won’t agree to a package with many of the changes sought by the MAGA wing of the party.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), seen at a 2020 news conference, is working to round up the votes he needs to be elected speaker when the 118th Congress convenes Jan. 3.

“Any concessions we’ve made on rules will be off the table if Kevin McCarthy isn’t elected speaker in an expedient way,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), chair of the centrist-leaning Main Street Caucus, told Bloomberg Government Monday. “We don’t believe that chaos should be rewarded.”

Johnson said the rules package includes changes that have wide support like giving members 72 hours to review legislation before voting on it. Another popular proposal would allow committee chairs to bring certain bills to the floor without first going through the Rules Committee.

But other rules revisions have less broad support and are only being offered to entice hard-right lawmakers, including many in the Freedom Caucus, to back McCarthy.

The most notable is a proposal for lowering the bar on the motion to vacate the chair, which would force a vote to oust as speaker if five GOP members support it. A similar provision effectively ended the tenure of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and many Republicans prefer a far higher threshold to prevent a small group of lawmakers from having outsize influence.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said he and other GOP members have concerns about how low the threshold of the motion to vacate the chair would be set, as well as McCarthy’s promise to ensure more Freedom Caucus members are on key committees. He noted the holdout members “have not changed their position, so giving unilateral concessions don’t work.”

“If we thought these folks were sincere and willing to support Kevin, then I think some give and take is fine,” Bacon told Bloomberg Government Monday. “They are hurting the conference and undermining our ability to lead the House.”

Holding Out

After speaking with McCarthy on Sunday afternoon about the rule changes, a group of nine current and incoming Freedom Caucus members said in a letter that there “continue to be missing specific commitments with respect to virtually every component of our entreaties, and thus, no means to measure whether promises are kept or broken.”

The nine members who signed the letter didn’t include the five Republicans who have already publicly declared they won’t support McCarthy. One of the five, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), tweeted Monday that McCarthy “has gone into total bargaining mode to acquire last-minute votes for House Speaker.”

“There are no principles anymore. It’s become a take-whatever-you-need motto,” Biggs tweeted. “This is what a McCarthy speakership would look like and would put our country last.”

Rules of the House

Not all parts of the rule package are controversial among Republicans.

The package would reverse a number of changes Democrats put in place, including getting rid of proxy voting, attempting to end staffer unions, and bringing back the Holman Rule allowing lawmakers to use appropriations bills to fire specific federal employees, reduce their pay, or cut specific programs. The package would also repeal the “Gephardt Rule,” preventing the House from raising the debt limit without a direct vote.

The rules package also would make it harder to increase taxes, requiring a three-fifths majority to do so.

McCarthy said in a Sunday letter that the changes were needed because “Congress is broken.”

“I truly believe these transformative changes we are making will restore the People’s House and end business as usual in Washington,” McCarthy said, “That’s why on January 3—and every day thereafter—I stand ready to be judged not by my words, but by my actions as Speaker.”

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: George Cahlink at; Loren Duggan at

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