News Analysis: The House is in chaos again, but it’s just another week for Kevin McCarthy

A man in a suit speaks to members of the media in National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) stops to speak to members of the media gathered in National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Hard-line conservatives threw the House of Representatives into chaos again this week, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy was once again forced to appease the same people who nearly denied him the job just six months ago.

The hard-right House Freedom Caucus’ latest revolt against McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) was over the National Defense Authorization Act, the law that authorizes the annual spending for the U.S. military.

That bill has historically passed with bipartisan support, and Republicans and Democrats had reached broad consensus on this year’s version, passing it
out of committee on a 58-1 vote last month. But GOP hard-liners demanded a slew of controversial last-minute amendments, including a measure to ban the military from reimbursing service members who travel to obtain abortions, and another to prohibit the armed forces from paying for gender-affirming healthcare.


After Republicans approved those amendments in a marathon voting session Thursday night, Democrats pulled their support from the defense spending bill, forcing Republicans to pass it by themselves.

The amended bill passed Friday morning by a 219-210 vote. Four Democrats voted with the GOP, and four Republicans opposed the bill.

McCarthy has tried to project calm in the face of the hard-liners’ continued demands. He’s managed to weather the House’s roiling crises so far without losing his job or triggering a U.S. debt default. And after enduring the public embarrassment of his 15-ballot fight to become speaker and a recent Freedom Caucus tantrum over his debt-ceiling deal with President Biden, he seems resigned to the mayhem.

“This just seems like another week in Congress,” he told reporters Tuesday. “I’ll get through it. We’ll figure it out as we go.”

A lot of people bet that the Republican from Bakersfield would be unable to keep his factionalized majority in line. He proved the doubters wrong. But the party remains deeply divided on an issue that once united it — the size of government.

June 2, 2023

Although hard-line conservatives in the House succeeded in making their changes to the spending bill, the current fight is unlikely to end in their victory. The Senate is still in Democrats’ hands, as is the White House, and Democratic negotiators will insist on stripping out the most controversial measures before allowing the bill to become law.

McCarthy’s most important allies recognize that reality.

“The final [defense spending] bill, it will be bipartisan,” House Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “No matter what we come out of here with, we’re going to sit down and negotiate with a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president. So the bill is going to move.


“We’re working hard — harder, in my opinion, than we should have to work, but everything’s hard in this Congress,” he said ruefully.

Democrats expressed outrage that McCarthy had abandoned the bipartisan bill and capitulated to the right wing of his conference.

“The bill we passed out of committee sent a clear, united message to our allies and partners, global competitors and the American people that democracy still works, and Congress is still functional,” the top Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee said in a statement Friday. “That bill no longer exists. What was once an example of compromise and functioning government has become an ode to bigotry and ignorance.”

An even bigger battle looms after Congress returns from its August break.

Lawmakers must pass a government funding bill by the end of September to avoid a government shutdown, and Freedom Caucus members are gearing up to use that negotiation as leverage to further slash spending.

On Monday, 21 of their members sent McCarthy a letter with a list of demands for the government funding bill — and threatened to vote against the defense bill if they don’t get what they want. The letter, organized by Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and caucus policy Chairman Chip Roy (R-Texas), stipulated that McCarthy abandon the agreement he struck with Biden this spring to avoid a debt default and authorize spending at lower levels.

Roy shrugged when asked about concerns that the Freedom Caucus demands might lead to a government shutdown.


“Everybody gets just so spun up about ‘Oh, it’s shutdown drama,’” Roy told The Times. “You only have so many leverage points here. At some point, the power of the purse has to mean something.”

Moderate lawmakers worry that the Freedom Caucus’ decision to turn the defense bill into another partisan brawl indicates that the looming government shutdown fight will get ugly.

“It’s really discouraging to see that even this might be partisan. This has always been a place where we have come together as a country,” Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) told The Times.

Freedom Caucus members aren’t particularly worried about political blowback from a government shutdown. In fact, many of them believe that triggering shutdowns has worked for them in the past.

In 2013, when Roy was chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), he helped persuade House Republicans to force a 17-day shutdown in an attempt to repeal Obamacare.

At the time, House GOP leaders hoped that rank-and-file Republicans would feel the pain and never want to shut down the government again. But the stunt had no obvious political ramifications — Republicans did extremely well in the next midterm election — and hard-line Republicans internalized the opposite lesson.


“When we went into that shutdown, we referred to it as a ‘touch the stove’ moment,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who worked for GOP House leadership at the time. “And the reality is, they didn’t get burned. It’s not that they didn’t learn their lesson — they learned the wrong lesson.”

Freedom Caucus members helped drive then-Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) into retirement in 2015, then blocked McCarthy from becoming speaker not long afterward because they didn’t trust his conservative bona fides.

They even caused havoc for then-President Trump at times, demanding his Obamacare repeal plan move hard to the right to earn their support.

But their power to cause chaos has grown this year due to the House GOP’s
thin majority. Because Republican leaders can afford to lose the support of only four members on any House vote, the dozen or so far-right lawmakers are able to disrupt the chamber at any time.

The party’s right wing forced McCarthy to make deep concessions before
allowing him to become speaker after 15 rounds of voting over five days in January. They were unhappy this spring with his deal with Biden to avoid hitting the debt ceiling, saying it didn’t go far enough — then grew furious when he relied on Democratic votes to overcome their objections.

They responded by withholding their support for GOP bills for more than a week, grinding the House to a halt in a warning to McCarthy.


The Bakersfield congressman’s ideological flexibility, fundraising prowess and management of Donald Trump have helped him hold House Republicans together as they head into the midterm elections. Now he’s on the verge of gaining the prize he has long desired.

Oct. 29, 2022

Roy credited McCarthy for listening more closely to his group after their post-debt-ceiling show of force.

“He’s being much more inclusive and open about including us and sitting at the table and talking through everything,” he said.

Given the circumstances, McCarthy is “handling it as well as he can and as well as anybody can,” Heye said.

But the GOP strategist warned that the possibility for a government shutdown by the end of the year “is very real” due to the Freedom Caucus, which he called the “Nothing Will Ever Be Good Enough Caucus.”

And the group’s latest antics are frustrating more mainstream Republicans.

When Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford), a McCarthy ally who represents a swing district, was asked whether the Freedom Caucus’ pressure on the speaker was healthy or helpful, he offered a deadpan response.

“I mean, they think it is. Some of us would disagree,” he said. “I’m one of the ones who’d disagree.”