WASHINGTON — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had to fight tooth and nail to secure the gavel. Now, tensions between him and some of his top deputies are spilling out into the open.
The chilly relationships further complicate challenges facing the Republican majority ahead of key deadlines to avert a government shutdown and a global economic meltdown in the coming months. McCarthy faces the daunting task of unifying his wafer-thin majority behind legislation that will also need Democratic support.
Under normal circumstances, the House majority leader and the Republican Budget Committee chairman would be natural allies as McCarthy seeks to thread that needle. But, as The New York Times reported this week, those relationships are fraying and McCarthy has privately criticized Budget Chair Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La. According to the Times, the comments came after Arrington quietly put out feelers during McCarthy's battle for the speaker's gavel to see if GOP lawmakers may instead back Scalise for the job.
NBC News has not independently confirmed Arrington's moves during the speaker battle or McCarthy's private remarks, but three House Republican aides confirmed that there are tensions in McCarthy's relationships with key GOP leaders.
Talks between Biden and McCarthy stall as debt ceiling deadline loomsMarch 29, 202302:07
The chilly dynamic was on display two weeks ago when the speaker dismissed Arrington’s plan to craft a debt limit offer, telling reporters: “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
Some believe McCarthy is deflecting blame.
"He’s made zero progress in debt negotiations and is getting nervous because he knows all these secret side deals and promises he made during his speaker race are not going to pan out," a senior House Republican aide told NBC News, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about sensitive internal dynamics. "So he’s trying to lay the groundwork to point fingers."
The Republican aide was also puzzled by McCarthy tapping Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., to lead Republican debt limit negotiations, calling it an attempt “to distance himself” from the issue. “What other speaker in history has outsourced debt ceiling negotiations to a random rank and file?” the aide said.
A second senior House GOP aide said they were “surprised” to see the tensions spilling out into the open. “But it’s no secret Scalise and McCarthy’s teams have always kinda been at odds,” the aide said.
Arrington’s office didn’t comment. McCarthy’s office referred to his remarks to the Times rejecting fissures with top deputies, calling Scalise “an essential partner” and praising Arrington’s work on the budget. Scalise’s office defended the majority leader’s work but didn’t weigh in on the relationship with McCarthy.
Arrington, as budget chief, is a pivotal figure in crafting two must-pass bills: the debt ceiling extension and a government funding bill. Republicans are struggling to agree on a set of demands ahead of a deadline that’s set to hit between June and September. Many in the GOP doubt they will pass a budget resolution, a nonbinding collection of priorities and policy vision. Divisions in the party have already caused House Republicans to struggle to pass messaging bills to beef up border security and rebuke liberal prosecutors.
Scalise, meanwhile, is McCarthy's No. 2. His communications director, Lauren Fine, issued a lengthy statement defending Scalise’s work on setting “the most productive floor schedule Congress has seen in years,” sending five bills to President Joe Biden’s desk, working with “every committee chair” to craft the House Republican agenda and having “led the effort to bring to the floor and pass” H.R.1, the new majority’s signature energy bill.
Arrington's Democratic counterpart defends him
In the White House and on Capitol Hill, Democrats see the emerging angst within the House Republican caucus as validation of their strategy to refuse to attach conditions to a debt limit increase, which would not authorize new spending but rather enable the U.S. to borrow to pay off existing debt imposed by Congress.
Rep. Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, said the failure lies with McCarthy.
“Republicans took raising the debt limit hostage and yet have no idea what ransom they want for it. Kevin McCarthy promised the sun, moon and stars to his Republican colleagues in order to get elected speaker. Now that he can’t even produce a GOP budget, he’s shifting the blame onto other Republican colleagues,” Boyle said. “Sadly, the GOP dysfunction raises the odds of default.”
In an unusual move, the Democrat also defended the Republican chairman amid the reported criticism from the GOP speaker.
“Chairman Arrington is both well liked and respected by members on my side of the aisle,” Boyle said. “He’s a bright, principled conservative.”
McCarthy has his share of defenders in the House GOP.
Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., backed McCarthy’s approach on the debt limit, saying the "real problem" is Biden’s refusal to negotiate. Armstrong criticized anonymous staff and lawmakers for "airing perceived slights and grievances," saying it sounds like "junior high."
"And these types of comments don’t help our leverage and is exactly why McCarthy has been smart to not try and negotiate terms in public," he said.
A third senior Republican aide acknowledged the tension between GOP leaders and committee chairs.
“Their messaging is often in tandem but not coordinated,” the aide said, leaving rank-and-file members often unclear as to what the priorities are and who is directing conference traffic.
The aide said the problems aren’t “raising serious alarm bells” — yet — because Republicans have been able to achieve goals like passing the energy bill and investigating the Biden administration. But with bigger challenges on the horizon, the aide added, “At some point we will all have to start rowing in the same direction.”