WASHINGTON — After a grueling five-day, 15-ballot floor fight for speaker, House Republicans on Monday night won the first of what's sure to be many tough legislative battles ahead: passing a package of rules that will govern how they run the House over the next two years.
A rules package at the start of a new Congress typically is not contentious, but because of the GOP’s fragile majority and concerns about Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s last-minute deal with the far-right Freedom Caucus, GOP vote counters were furiously working to hold the line.
The vote was 220 to 213, with one Republican, Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, joining all Democrats in voting "no."
A member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, Gonzales had complained that some of McCarthy’s concessions to conservative agitators — specifically one making it easier to oust McCarthy as speaker — went too far and reiterated all weekend that he was opposed to the package. Another self-described pragmatist, Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., said over the weekend that she was "on the fence," but she later voted "yes."
"This is only the beginning. These are the easy part[s], the speaker vote and the rules vote," Gonzales said on Fox News on Monday. "But I guarantee you, nobody expected 15 rounds of voting. ... No one said it's going to be four days, 15 rounds of voting and your families are going to be run through the ringer.
"As bad as it was to watch it, it was even worse to be part of it," Gonzales continued. "Who wants to see this fiasco get played out over and over again?"
The conservative advocacy group, FreedomWorks, responded by tweeting: "If Tony's a 'NO' on the House Rules Package he should not be welcomed into the 119th Congress."
But Gonzales was unapologetic about breaking with his party after the vote: "Last week was pretty chaotic; I don't want to see that happen again so I think it's time to give Kevin McCarthy the opportunity to fulfill this commitment to America."
Because of their razor-thin majority, McCarthy's leadership team could afford to lose only four GOP votes on the rules package for the new Congress. Failure to pass it could have blown up the delicate deal McCarthy cut last week with the Freedom Caucus to secure the speaker’s gavel.
One provision in the rules package — demanded by conservatives and slammed by moderates — would lower the threshold to just a single lawmaker to force a floor vote to oust McCarthy from the speaker's office during these next two years.
The motion to "vacate the chair seems like a bad idea," Gonzales told reporters.
Another rules change, secured by conservatives, would ban the practice of automatically raising the federal debt ceiling when Congress passes a budget resolution. It means that the House and Senate will need to take a separate vote to hike the nation's borrowing limit, and Republicans have said they will be demanding massive spending cuts in exchange.
That is sure to result in a fiscal standoff between House Republicans and Democrats, who control the White House and Senate, when the country hits its $31.4 trillion debt limit, which is expected to happen late in the summer.
Even though it should have been an easy lift, Republican leaders took a victory lap given the GOP infighting that dominated headlines last week.
"I think it's a good sign that what happened last week actually built confidence rather than destroyed it," Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said in an interview. "Clearly this shows that the differences last week don't have any lasting divisions inside the conference."
Other rules changes in the package include:
- Requiring that new spending has to be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget.
- Requiring that lawmakers get 72 hours to read a bill before it's brought to the floor.
- Eliminating proxy or remote voting.
- Allowing the House to vote to create a select subcommittee focused on investigating the origins of the pandemic and the "weaponization of the federal government.”
- Gutting the Office of Congressional Ethics, the nonpartisan, independent office that investigates lawmakers.
Separate from the package, McCarthy agreed to place three Freedom Caucus members on the influential Rules Committee, which determines how bills come to the floor; hold a vote on term limits for members of Congress; and to place another Freedom member on the committee that determines committee chairmen.
After approving the rules measure, the House passed its first bill in the new GOP majority: legislation sponsored by Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., to rescind more than $70 billion in new funding for the IRS that was approved by Congress last year as part of President Joe Biden's Inflation Reduction Act. The 221-210 vote was along party lines.
The GOP bill will go nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan scorekeeper, said Monday that the IRS bill would reduce federal revenue by nearly $186 billion while slashing funding by nearly $72 billion, thereby adding $186 billion to the deficit over the next decade.
In other developments, the GOP Steering Committee, which decides who gets committee gavels and seats, has recommended Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., to be the chairman of the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Smith, who aggressively campaigned for his GOP colleagues in the 2022 midterms, defeated Reps. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., and Adrian Smith for the chairmanship.
Steering members also voted to recommend Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., over Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, for Homeland Security Committee chairman.
The full GOP Conference is expected to sign off on those recommendations this week.