Editor’s Note: Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and advocacy group based in Washington, DC. He is also a former senior policy adviser to Congress’ Joint Economic Committee. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed in this piece are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
I’ll be the first to admit it — I, along with many other political observers, underestimated House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
When Republicans underperformed in last year’s midterm elections, his House majority was the thinnest for an incoming GOP speaker in years. It took a remarkable 15 votes for McCarthy to be elected speaker, and his success came at the price of making hefty concessions to hardline right-wingers. His decision to play hardball in debt ceiling talks struck many (including me) as a high-risk, moderate-reward step.
But credit where credit is due — McCarthy has, to date, managed to keep the train from running off-track. His modest win in the debt ceiling negotiations was a prime example that he knows just how far he can push, or be pushed by, his caucus.
Still, McCarthy has very little breathing room, as the recent dust-up between the House Freedom Caucus and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia shows. Greene was ejected from this group of Republicans in what was largely seen as a rebuke for her vocal defenses of McCarthy’s leadership.
And this week’s wrangling over a must-pass defense bill is yet another reminder of how thin McCarthy’s margin for error is. It is also a strong indicator that the GOP’s internal tensions will remain unresolved until and unless a Republican president is sworn into office and can provide a compelling vision for the party.
Like any good manager of a political coalition, McCarthy’s position requires him to be less beholden to specific governing principles and more interested in cutting deals within his own caucus and with Democrats in the Senate and the White House.
In negotiations over the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for example, McCarthy originally sought to tamp down conservative enthusiasms. As Axios reported, House leadership tried to steer hardline members away from including social issues-related amendments in the defense bill, which are priorities for conservative activists, but could imperil the legislation’s ultimate passage in a Democratic-controlled Senate.
Conservative groups vocally encouraged the House GOP to use the NDAA to prevent what they say is executive overreach from the Biden administration. In response to state abortion bans, the Pentagon has adopted a policy of reimbursing service members who travel out-of-state to procure abortions. A letter from prominent pro-life groups pointed out that this Biden administration post-Dobbs expansion of abortion coverage was legally suspect and asked Congress “to reassert [its] authority over policymaking and ensure that our nation’s laws and policies reflect the will of the American people.”
McCarthy clearly wanted to get the massive defense bill passed in a timely fashion. But the reality eventually set in — even if it makes final passage more difficult, conservative members, and the activists they hear from, were not going to swallow being told to take a back seat when it came to the abortion-related travel issue. (Because taxpayer funding of abortion remains divisive, the gambit may even pay political dividends for some Republicans, if vulnerable Democrats are forced to explain their opposition to a defense bill because of hot-button cultural stances.)
Similarly, Republican leadership may have hoped amendments on Pentagon diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and banning coverage of surgeries and hormone treatments for transgender service members could have been tabled. But the contemporary conservative movement is concerned about policies that could be seen as turning the military “woke” and pressed McCarthy’s team for votes on those amendments, which each passed late Thursday. The sweeping defense bill passed the House on Friday, largely along party lines.
As in the debt ceiling fight, McCarthy may have been pressed to take a more aggressive position on the defense bill amendments than he naturally would have preferred. But without a national figure providing a vision for what the Republican Party should prioritize, the internal divides within the GOP conference leave him with no choice but to hang on for the ride.
And the final bill will have to be negotiated with the Democratic-controlled Senate. McCarthy will have to be seen as fighting hard for these issues, even if they are likely to be left on the cutting room floor, to quell his restless right flank.
McCarthy faces another headache on this year’s budget negotiations, where fiscal hawks are seeking to approve less funding than was agreed upon with the White House, as part of the debt ceiling deal. And immigration underscores yet another challenge for the speaker.
The party has been divided on what to do about agricultural visas, which many farmers, who heavily supported Trump, rely on. In their bill earlier this year, some House Republicans would have required all employers to use the e-verify system, which is supposed to confirm whether a given employee has authorization to work in the United States. That bill passed the House but has not been voted on in the Senate yet.
Should it pass, this bill would have massive ramifications for farmers and the agricultural sector. According to the Center for Migration Studies, over eight in 10 agricultural workers in the US are born outside the country, and nearly half are undocumented.
Some conservatives will argue that temporary visas for agricultural workers undercut wages for US-born workers; farm industry groups often counter by pointing out that the wages necessary to attract native-born workers to harvest crops would make their products economically uncompetitive. Meanwhile, many states, like Florida, are implementing or expanding their e-verify requirements.
This issue is coming to a head. In the current Homeland Security funding bill, Republicans concerned about agricultural interests included language that would expand the availability of agricultural work visas whether or not they are for a “temporary or seasonal nature,” a change from current law. Anti-immigration forces in the GOP have been incensed, calling it a way of “displacing American workers in favor of exploitable foreign workers.”
McCarthy’s role as part-matchmaker, part-marriage counselor between his more establishment wing and the more aggressive House members, such as those who belong to the House Freedom Caucus, means his tools of assuaging concerns are limited.
In this case, the importance of getting a bill passed may outweigh the concerns of the more ideological members of his party. And so, despite populist ire around immigration, the establishment-friendly forces within the party might soon claim a win here.
McCarthy’s speakership, so far, has been the equivalent of a beat-up jalopy, hanging together long enough to get Republicans from point A to point B, and even showing a surprising amount of agility around some twists and turns. But he hasn’t gotten to his destination.
For those — like myself — who thought the wheels were on the verge of coming off, McCarthy has shown himself to be a more than competent operator. And if he’s able to rack up a few more conservative wins while keeping the disparate parts of the House Republican majority from driving into a ditch, he’ll have pulled off a feat that, adjusted for degree of difficulty, might rank up there with some of the cleverest modern-day speakers.
But as the NDAA wrangling and defenestration of Greene illustrates, his toughest internal challenges may yet be ahead of him.