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U.S. House paralyzed as conservative Republicans' fight with McCarthy drags on

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters as he walks to the House floor on Tuesday.
Anna Moneymaker
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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters as he walks to the House floor on Tuesday.

Updated June 7, 2023 at 8:11 PM ET

House GOP leaders have canceled votes for the rest of the week following a rebellion from a bloc of conservative Freedom Caucus members that paralyzed floor action for two days in a row.

"We're going to have to make up our work next week," House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters Wednesday evening.

It's not clear what specifically the dissatisfied GOP faction are demanding of the speaker.

"This is the difficulty — some of these members, they don't know what to ask for — there's numerous different things they're frustrated about," McCarthy said. "We got a small majority. There's a little chaos going on."

His comments came after continuing closed-door meetings with members of the Freedom Caucus, though McCarthy noted it's not just that group now raising concerns.

"What happens is, when 11 [members] do one thing one day, there's a whole group of others that want to do something else," he said.

The initial revolt took place on Tuesday, when 11 Republicans joined Democratic lawmakers in voting to prevent debate on a pair of bills that would ramp up gas stove protections — a GOP priority that had been expected to garner significant Republican support. The torpedoing of the bills was done as apparent retribution for the recent debt ceiling deal brokered by the speaker and President Biden.

It marked the first such failure on the House floor in more than 20 years.

The publicly humiliating blow for McCarthy and House Republican leadership follows intraparty discord lingering from the debt deal, with conservative Republicans saying the compromise legislation didn't go far enough to cut spending.

A flurry of meetings followed the stunning floor rebellion, with House Freedom Caucus members and leadership meeting Tuesday evening through Wednesday.

McCarthy expressed his frustration, telling reporters he was "blindsided."

"From the first day we came in, we have a five-seat majority, so anybody can disrupt any bill that we do," said McCarthy, who faced 15 rounds of votes for his conference to elect him speaker.

He added that he did not take the job "because it's easy."

"I knew from day one with a small majority of people have strong opinions, with people who are bright, articulate, people who understand how to use the media as well — I will listen to them," McCarthy said. "But at the end of the day, we've got to come together."

Colorado GOP Rep. Ken Buck told reporters on Wednesday that members of the Freedom Caucus wanted assurances they could restore a deal they struck with McCarthy in January before electing him speaker.

Rep. Dan Bishop spoke alongside members of the Freedom Caucus to announce they would oppose the deal to raise the debt limit on May 30.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Rep. Dan Bishop spoke alongside members of the Freedom Caucus to announce they would oppose the deal to raise the debt limit on May 30.

For example, some conservatives argued the debt ceiling deal should have kept all spending levels at fiscal 2022 levels to stay in line with that agreement. McCarthy told reporters that was an impossible ask.

"There was an agreement in January and it was violated in the debt ceiling bill," said Buck, a member of the caucus who tanked the Tuesday vote that brought the floor to a standstill.

The debt ceiling deal's spending provisions were among those that violated the January agreement, Buck said. In addition, he said there were concerns that another member of the caucus was threatened by leadership over a vote to allow debate on the debt ceiling bill.

Rep. Patrick McHenry, one of the key negotiators on the speaker's team for the debt limit deal, pushed back Tuesday on the idea that the rebellion had anything to do with a so-called January agreement.

"What happened on the floor was not connected with the first week of January," he told reporters Tuesday. "That is a misrepresentation of what happened. That's not what members are talking about."

Texas Rep. Chip Roy, who was part of the rebellious GOP group, met with McCarthy Tuesday evening alongside fellow Freedom Caucus members. He told reporters as he was leaving the meeting that more work remained.

"We've got some more conversations to be had," Roy said.

"We had a breakdown in the process last week," he said. "We think we need to restore the process that was working."

Republican claims he was threatened over debt limit vote

South Carolina GOP Rep. Ralph Norman, a member of the Freedom Caucus who also voted against the Republican measure, told reporters the members' rejection of the rule was "about a lot of things." He said that included frustration about the debt ceiling deal and an apparent slow-walking of Rep. Andrew Clyde's bill regarding pistol stabilizing braces.

"It is about moving the bill — the brace rule — holding that and not putting that on the floor," he said. "That's part of it."

Clyde has previously said on provocateur Steve Bannon's controversial podcast that House leadership threatened to block his bill on pistol braces if he voted against advancing the debt ceiling legislation.

"I was told by leadership that if I didn't vote for the rule [for the debt ceiling debate], that it would be very difficult to bring my bill to the floor," Clyde said.

Clyde said late Tuesday he had confirmed with House leadership that they would allow the legislation on the House floor next week.

"I will hold them to this promise. And I will never back down in the fight to defend our natural rights," he tweeted.

What does this mean for McCarthy?

House Freedom Caucus members have been vocal in their disappointment with McCarthyover the recent debt ceiling legislation, claiming the speaker didn't do enough to force significant spending cuts.

But despite the vitriol, conservative members have shied away from moving on a motion to vacate, a rule McCarthy agreed to in January in his fight for the speakership. The plan enables any one House member to offer a resolution to remove the speaker.

McCarthy repeatedly shrugged off questions about the fate of his speakership on Wednesday — saying he's not concerned about a threat to his gavel.

On Monday night, Norman said there isn't any other viable candidate who could garner 218 votes to replace McCarthy as speaker. However, he was quick to add there's palpable frustration among his caucus.

"We think he gave the farm away," he told NPR of the debt deal, adding McCarthy has other avenues to "show his conservatism" going forward.

"Fighting another day means you look at appropriations, look at reallocations on the military budget, look at the farm bill," he said. "There are other things that he can do that hopefully will get this country back on financial footing."

Virginia Republican Bob Good, also a Freedom Caucus member, told NPR the group will continue pushing for "meaningful cuts and spending reductions." Good also joined the Republicans who tanked the Tuesday vote.

"I think we need to look at all of the spending bills and see what are the areas of opportunity to cut, unnecessary wasteful spending, unjustified spending or actual spending that is harmful to the American people," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.