Republicans looked like they were heading for a no-win debacle on the House floor.
Instead, Kevin McCarthy got over the top, achieving a long-held ambition after a daunting feat of political endurance, and his opponents got nearly every assurance and rules-change they were seeking.
Of course, some of those changes come at the expense of McCarthy’s power as speaker, and the current honeymoon mood among House Republicans after last week’s drama won’t last.
But both McCarthy and his internal adversaries look better in light of the resolution, and among the latter, particularly Rep. Chip Roy, the third-term Texas Republican and former Ted Cruz chief of staff. His profile and influence grew during the standoff, and he’ll play a key role in the contentions to come.
I checked in with Roy about how last week played out from his perspective, and what it means.
For many, including me, the seriousness of purpose behind the Republican revolt against McCarthy was obscured by the inability of many of the dissidents to articulate an end-game, or come up with an alternative candidate for speaker. The prominent role of the likes of Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert, who enjoy pyrotechnics for the sake of them, was also inevitably discrediting.
Roy was the one to watch, though. He is not a nihilist, but an institutionalist with a well-considered view of how the House should work. He wants to take the leadership down a notch and allow more decentralized decision-making and fuller debate to empower the rank-and-file.
At bottom, this priority relates to his view of what it means to represent constituents.
“If you take away my ability as a member to be able to offer an amendment and to speak up and debate for it,” Roy explains, “then I no longer am truly representing them. That means all I’m reduced to is voting ‘yes,’ or ‘no,’ up or down on some bill put together by other people’s representatives.”
As a passionate and sincere fiscal hawk, he also hates the shortcuts and distortions of the process that have led to rushed, must-pass “omnibus” spending bills.
As the drama unfolded on the House floor, Roy and his House Freedom Caucus allies had been lobbying for the same essential set of priorities for months. Indeed, one way to look at last week’s fight is that it was the most intense phase of an ongoing negotiation. The effort to get the GOP leadership to agree to changes began last summer, and the proponents didn’t make a secret of what they were after.
A July 2022 memo from the House Freedom Caucus outlined the thrust of the items that would eventually be adopted, and a Dec. 8 letter from Roy and a handful of others to their House colleagues, forecast the final deal almost exactly, from allowing one member to make a motion to vacate the chair to a special committee to investigate “weaponized government.”
Roy says that there is, of course, back-room dealing in Congress all the time — members trading votes for committee assignments and the like — but this, from his perspective, wasn’t that: “We were putting out in very public view, ‘Here’s the stuff that we think we need.’ And then we were fighting over it.”
The changes fell into roughly three buckets: new rules for how the House GOP conference and the House itself would operate, “so that it’s not a handful of people,” as Roy puts it, “behind closed doors doing all the deals”; getting more conservatives on key committees — “if you don't have conservatives who question spending” on these top panels, he asks, “how are you ever going to get changes?”; and various policy commitments to fiscal discipline.
Last summer, the dissenters began thinking about how they wanted to re-do the rules. They consulted old hands and came up with a proposal that was presented to McCarthy. That didn’t go anywhere, and then the midterm campaign season started in earnest. As long as it seemed as though Republicans would prevail in November by a comfortable margin, there was no incentive for the leadership to take the House Freedom Caucus push seriously.
“I think they kind of felt like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to get 230 [Republicans], 235, 240, certainly mid-230s, and we’re going to have the power to roll over anyone who’s raising concerns,’” Roy says. “[That’s] the sense that we got, because there was no real interaction on trying to fight for those rules. I can tell you on Nov. 9, there was.”
Still, even with a much narrower than expected majority, leadership was confident. The dissenters looked at the vote to make McCarthy the party’s nominee as speaker in a conference vote in mid-November as a way to signal he had to bargain. Roy recalls, “Kevin was like, ‘Look, I’ve got the votes. I’ll get the votes.’ And we were saying, ‘Kevin, you don’t have the votes. We need to change this place. And if you change this place, you might get the votes.’”
Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona stood as a protest candidate. His backers thought he’d get a little more than 20 votes. Instead, he got 31. Of, course, this meant McCarthy won handily, but with a January vote on the floor looming where he could only lose 4 votes, it was a warning sign.
There were meetings on and off throughout November on possible alterations to the rules. Then, in early December, the five “Never Kevin’s” announced their opposition. “Once you had five doing that, and it was growing,” Roy says, “we had leverage to say, ‘Okay, what are we going to do to change this place, Kevin?’”
Roy and a number of others didn’t say they were a “no” on McCarthy because they wanted to maintain the flexibility to find a solution to the approaching deadlock. Before Christmas, they’d secured agreement on some changes to House rules, although there was still contention over the push to allow one vote to vacate the chair.
Roy calls the motion to vacate “a little bit of a shiny object.” There was disproportionate focus on it, even though it was important for both sides. For Roy, the rule dating back to the beginnings of the U.S. Congress has tradition going for it, and is part and parcel of placing more control in the hands of individual members.
It was clear, though, that this would be an intense battle. “There was a lot of violent pushback by quarters of the conference,” Roy says, “and Kevin himself.”
As the vote on Jan. 3rd grew closer, the talks and meetings continued, although with nothing definitive on the motion to vacate — leadership floated a five-vote threshold, but some moderates balked at going even that far — or on the make-up of committees and potential commitments on fiscal policy.
The Republicans had a meeting the morning before the House convened on Tuesday, and, as has been widely reported, it was a train-wreck. “It was a horrible conference meeting,” Roy says, “horrible.” Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, a key McCarthy ally (he’s the one who lunged at Gaetz on the House floor near the end of the saga), threatened to strip committee assignments from McCarthy’s opponents. “Literally, I looked around the room at those who were on the fence on what to do,” Roy recalls, “and they said, ‘Nope, you just cemented it. We’re going to vote a different way.’”
The initial whip count of objectors, according to Roy, was that “there’s about probably 12 of us, give or take. And then after that Tuesday conference meeting, you saw what happened. There were 19 that said a different name.”
The leadership went onto the floor thinking it could grind down the opposition. “The whole operation there,” Roy notes, “was saying, ‘Look, Kevin’s going to force these votes and just keep forcing the votes.’ I said, ‘Well, we’re going to have to figure out how to break the impasse because there’s a bloc here who aren’t going to move without either changes, and then for some people, maybe ever.’”
There was an enervating stand-off at first. “We had to basically prove for a day that we weren’t going anywhere,” Roy says. “We did. And then all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Well, crap, we got to figure this out.” And I offered, ‘I will sit down and try to figure this out.’ And a group of us did.”
On Wednesday, representatives from both sides began to methodically work through the outstanding issues. Meanwhile, McCarthy’s losses on the House floor kept adding up. “Sometime on Thursday,” Roy recalls, “it became readily apparent to me that, ‘Look, he’s in real trouble if we can’t get to a place where we can agree to serious terms.’”
The serious terms came on Friday, and changed everything. Suddenly, McCarthy gained 15 votes. “We’d had enough conversations,” Roy says. “I knew it was going to be double digits, but I didn’t know it was going to be 15 until there was 15.”
The agreement basically memorialized everything that was in the Dec. 8 letter, such that the fight to decentralize the rules, at least in this instance, is itself vindication of what a relatively small, determined group of members can achieve.
Roy doesn’t believe that the motion to vacate will ever be used “if we didn’t have a really good reason and have a significant bloc of our colleagues to stand alongside or behind us.” And he’s optimistic that the conference is on the same page for what he hopes will be consequential fights over spending.
Those will test Republican unity in — especially when it comes to the debt ceiling — high-pressure, high-stakes circumstances. If the fight over the speakership over the last week is any indication, Chip Roy will be in the midst of it all, an important voice and a crucial vote.