The deal that may make Kevin McCarthy speaker, explained

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After days of negotiations and failed votes in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy and his House GOP leadership allies have crafted a proposed agreement with holdouts on the right that has brought him quite close to becoming speaker.

Though those involved continue to stress there is no final “deal” in hand — they’re calling it a “framework” — McCarthy presented an offer Thursday night. And over the course of the new rounds of voting for speaker Friday, 15 of the 21 GOP holdouts’ votes swung in his favor. If he swings just three of the remaining six recalcitrant Republicans, he’ll have the support he needs. Some reporting suggests he thinks he’ll get there when the House reconvenes late Friday night.

So what, exactly, is in that deal — er, framework?

The full proposal hasn’t leaked, but parts of it have, and from what we know, there appear to be three main components.

First: McCarthy made promises about how he would approach government-spending-related issues like appropriations bills and the debt ceiling, and those promises appear to set the stage for tense showdowns with Democrats.

Second: McCarthy agreed to a change in the House rules that would make it easier to trigger an effective no-confidence vote in his own leadership.

Third: McCarthy agreed to committee assignments demanded by the holdouts, including placing Republicans associated with the hardline Freedom Caucus on the powerful Rules Committee.

This likely isn’t everything McCarthy gave away — he probably also made various other specific promises to specific people in private. But the overall upshot is that the right flank of the GOP will have a major say in how McCarthy runs his House, and that there will be tense times ahead as they try to tackle the basic work of governance.

That was always going to be the case, though, and the real questions are still about if and how House Republicans manage to climb down and make a deal with Democrats on keeping the government open and preventing a default on the country’s debt.

The framework, or at least what we know of it, covers McCarthy’s plan for how he and the House GOP will handle the thorny government spending fights that will likely dominate the legislative agenda this year. Susan Ferrechio of the Washington Times obtained text of this part of the framework and tweeted it in this thread. The important bits include:

The debt ceiling

At some point this year, Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling to prevent a potentially catastrophic default on the national debt. Conservatives want to use this must-pass bill as leverage, to force Democrats into accepting spending cuts they want. (This is a strategy the House GOP previously used in a 2011 showdown with President Obama.) Democrats have said this would be hostage-taking, and that they won’t negotiate with it.

According to Ferrechio, McCarthy’s offer states: “We will not agree to a debt limit increase absent a discretionary budgetary agreement in line with the House-passed budget resolution or other commensurate fiscal reforms to reduce and cap the growth of spending.”

This is basically a promise to try to drive a hard bargain on the debt ceiling battle. McCarthy had already said he’d do this last October, so it’s not new. But it does set up a dangerous situation for later this year.

Budget

McCarthy commits that House Republicans will create a plan for a balanced federal budget within 10 years, including “long-term reforms” to mandatory spending programs (entitlements like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid), as well as capping discretionary spending where it was during the first fiscal year of the Biden administration.

This will be a politically perilous and controversial effort — it has already led to headlines pointing out it would mean cutting $75 billion in defense spending from current levels. And any such budget, if the House does manage to pass one, would be dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate. But Republicans on the right likely hope it will serve as a statement of their principles and a tough opening bid in negotiations over spending.

Senate negotiations

In recent years, Congress has tended to fund the government by running up to the deadline where previous funding bills would expire — which would mean a government shutdown — and then passing either a “continuing resolution” extending status quo funding levels for a time or one massive “omnibus” bill funding the whole federal government (as just happened last month). Spending hawks in the GOP hate this practice, and they want to put a stop to it. But they know they don’t have unilateral power to do so, because Democrats control the Senate and Biden controls the presidency.

McCarthy’s proposal, then, is that the House would not pass any Senate appropriations bills that don’t comply with the House’s own budget resolution. That is — they’re saying Democrats must cave to their demands on spending levels. Democrats will not want to do this, so if they stick to it, it probably means a government shutdown.

Still, again, this should probably be interpreted as what McCarthy is telling House Republicans he’ll do initially, rather than his drop-dead bottom line — though more on this below.

For all of these spending topics, the House GOP will not be formally bound in any way by this framework. So if they feel political pain from being blamed for a shutdown or a potential debt default, these promises could go out the window.

If McCarthy violates his spending agreements in a way some conservatives dislike, they’ll have a way to put him through the wringer.

For most of its history, the House gave any one member the power to file a privileged “motion to vacate the chair,” which would force the House to vote on whether to depose the speaker. Hardly anyone ever used it, but when then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) filed one to try to push out Speaker John Boehner in 2015, it helped contribute to Boehner’s decision to resign. Democrats then greatly weakened this power when they took over the House in 2019, requiring not just one member but half of a party’s members to advance this motion.

Conservatives wanted to roll back this change, but McCarthy was initially reluctant to fully do so, offering instead to require five members. After losing his first few speaker votes, though, he gave in and said he’d let one member do it.

All this matters because the dynamics of the speaker election, as we’re currently seeing, can give stubborn rebels great leverage over party leaders. But once the speaker is elected, the hardliners lose that leverage — unless there’s an easy way to force another speaker election. Now they have one.

Still, there’s a reason almost nobody has ever used this in the House’s history — it would still take 218 votes to elect someone else speaker, and if the vast majority of House Republicans remain loyal to McCarthy, there will just be gridlock. Additionally, if McCarthy is put through this after cutting a deal with Democrats, it’s possible Democrats could then save him from a hard-right revolt in return.

Finally, McCarthy made an offer of some kind involving committee assignments that the rebels were demanding. Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), who switched from an anti-McCarthy to a pro-McCarthy vote after he had the framework in hand Friday, described this issue as “conservative representation” in the House.

The details here still appear to be in flux. But Politico’s Sarah Ferris reported that McCarthy would let the hardliners have three seats on the House Rules Committee.

The Rules Committee is important because it determines what will come to the House floor, when it will be brought, and how debate and amendments over it will proceed. In recent decades, it has essentially done the bidding of the speaker of the House — indeed, it’s one of the main sources of the speaker’s power over the chamber.

So handing over some committee seats to firebrand conservatives who have a tendency to try and muck up party leaders’ agenda would be quite a change. Per Ferris, three seats for hardliners would be enough to let them block legislation from moving through the committee (unless Democrats provide their own votes to help get a bill through).

There have been rumors of other promises made about committee seats and subcommittee chairmanships. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), one staunchly conservative holdout, reportedly wanted to chair the appropriations subcommittee on labor and health and human services, but other Republicans objected. Harris finally backed McCarthy in a speaker vote Friday afternoon, but there was no word on whether a deal had been struck on that.

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