McCarthy feels the heat as frustrated conservatives grow more aggressive

Six months into the new Congress, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is increasingly bending to the demands of the conservative fringe of his GOP conference, a dynamic highlighted this week by his surprise threat to impeach U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The Speaker has, to an extent, been successful in disarming his conservative detractors through the first half of the year, winning their support in January’s race for the gavel and sidelining them more recently in adopting must-pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling.

But frustrated conservatives are getting more aggressive, threatening to tank federal funding bills and risk a government shutdown while pushing harder to force the impeachment votes GOP leaders have sought to avoid. 

The dynamics reflect the bald political reality of governing with a tiny and restive House majority, one in which the conservative distrust of the Speaker runs deep and GOP leaders have little room for defections when their legislative priorities come to the floor. 

The result has been that McCarthy is compelled, more and more, to act on the demands of the small but pugnacious group of conservative firebrands who have threatened his Speakership from the first days of January and are vowing to exert their leverage to obtain their legislative objectives.

“I am maybe not on his Christmas card list,” said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), former head of the far-right Freedom Caucus, of his antagonistic relationship with the Speaker.

McCarthy has gradually responded to the conservative demands simply by conceding to them. 

In recent weeks, the Speaker has catered to his right flank by targeting next year’s spending at levels below those outlined in the bipartisan debt limit deal. He’s endorsed a resolution to censure Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) after an initial vote splintered the GOP. He’s swallowed a vote to impeach President Biden — even if only to punt the issue to committee.

He’s championed resolutions to expunge the two impeachments of former President Trump. And most recently, he’s adopted a harder line on the ouster of cabinet officials, like Garland.

“If the allegations from the IRS whistleblowers are proven true through House Republican investigations, we will begin an impeachment inquiry on Biden's Attorney General, Merrick Garland,” McCarthy tweeted Tuesday

That position is a major shift for the Speaker, who has been cold to the idea of rushing into impeachments this year, warning against politicizing the process and arguing for the conclusion of congressional investigations before launching any impeachment proceedings. But impatient conservatives have other ideas. 

Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) last week forced the vote on Biden’s impeachment and is threatening to bring it to the floor again if the committees of jurisdiction don’t act quickly enough for her liking. 

“I would hope that it would be this year — and very soon,” Boebert said as Congress left Washington last week for a long July Fourth recess.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has introduced impeachment articles targeting at least four administration officials, including Biden and Garland, and is warning she’ll use special procedures to fast-track those bills to the floor. 

And Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said this week Garland might be just the start.

“It’s hard to keep up with it all,” Roy told WMAL radio on Monday

“We gotta look into [Alejandro] Mayorkas,” he continued, referring to the Homeland Security secretary. “We gotta look into Biden himself. We gotta look into Hunter Biden. … The American people deserve an administration that is not above the law and lawless.”

Even more pressing than impeachment has been the internal GOP battle over deficit spending. McCarthy, as one of the many concessions to his conservative critics in January, vowed a push to cut next year’s spending back to last year’s levels — a reduction of roughly $120 billion below the spending caps agreed upon in the debt ceiling deal.

McCarthy, backed by Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-Texas), is vowing to make good on that promise, targeting 2024 spending at 2022 levels. But the conservatives are skeptical, accusing the Speaker of using budget “gimmicks,” known as rescissions, to claim savings that won’t materialize. 

“One place I’m pretty firmly planted is, we had an agreement on fiscal year 2022 discretionary spending levels as a fundamental component of the Speaker’s contest and the agreement that resolved that. I believe that needs to be honored,” said Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.). 

“I don’t know how, precisely, we’ll get it resolved.” 

Opposition from only a handful of conservatives would be enough to block the Republicans’ appropriations bills, raising the likelihood McCarthy will have to slash 2024 spending even further — at least in the initial round of House bills — and heightening the odds of a government shutdown later in the year, when Senate Democrats inevitably will oppose those cuts. 

In the eyes of Democrats, McCarthy has become captive to a small conservative fringe for the sake of retaining his grip on power. 

“The Speaker is catering to an extreme element in his caucus, and I don’t even think the majority of his caucus agrees with that position,” Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), head of the New Democrat Coalition, told reporters last week. 

Democrats are not the only critics. The conservatives’ threat to oppose their party’s spending bills is also frustrating more moderate Republicans and leadership allies, who say the hard-liners are ignoring the political reality of a divided government. 

“When it’s all said and done, you're gonna end up with the debt ceiling agreement,” said centrist Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.). “Because the Senate’s not gonna go more conservative, and we’re not gonna let them spend more.”

Complicating McCarthy’s balancing act has been the candidacy of Trump, who remains the overwhelming favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination despite a long trail of legal and ethical troubles, including recent indictments over his handling of classified documents. 

In an interview with CNBC on Tuesday morning, McCarthy, who has not endorsed a 2024 candidate, raised the question of whether Trump is the strongest Republican contender to challenge Biden next year. The remarks reportedly sparked an outcry, forcing McCarthy to shift gears and hail the former president’s recent poll ratings. 

“Just look at the numbers this morning,” McCarthy told Breitbart News several hours later. “Trump is stronger today than he was in 2016.”

Mychael Schnell contributed.