Speaker Kevin McCarthy vowed to open up the House floor to more freewheeling debate. Now he’s finding out how hard it is to keep that promise.
As the GOP prepares to bring up a pair of marquee bills on energy and education, McCarthy and his leadership team are knee-deep in proposed amendments from their own party that — if adopted — could tank both pieces of legislation outright.
“That’s the advantage, or disadvantage, of having open amendments. We’ll see how it rolls out. This would be the first true test,” Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) said. He called it a stark turnaround from past years, when members complained they lacked “buy-in” on key votes.
Senior Republicans say they ultimately have the votes to pass both the energy and education bills on the floor. But that’s only after an aggressive whip operation by McCarthy’s leadership team, including Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), to assuage concerns about the flood of amendments.
That kind of last-minute scrambling to lock down votes is likely to be the norm for Republican leadership over the next two years, as the party fights to tether its disparate wings together on broad promises the GOP focused on in its push to reclaim the House majority. And none of it will be easy, given that the party has just four votes to spare on any measure coming to the floor — not to mention a Democratic caucus eager to exploit the fissures across the aisle.
Republicans’ worries are particularly acute when it comes to the education measure they have dubbed the “parents’ bill of rights.” A bloc of House moderates, for example, privately raised alarms about a proposed amendment to the education bill from Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) that would effectively gut the Department of Education, banning it from handling “any office or program related to elementary or secondary education.”
But just before the bill came to the floor on Thursday, Massie’s amendment got tweaked to mollify those moderates’ concerns.
The GOP’s balancing act doesn’t apply only to amendments. House Republicans are facing headwinds on another major priority: how to frame their underlying bill designed to address boosting security at the U.S.-Mexico border.
On one side, there’s Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who’s pushing a bill to severely restrict migration into the U.S. But on the other side are Reps. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas), Mario Diaz Balart (R-Fla.) and their allies — who are more moderate on the issue and fear Roy’s bill could ultimately bar asylum claims.
Roy and Gonzales’ feud has appeared to devolve from policy disagreements to personal grudges, enough so that GOP leadership has spoken to both Texans to try to smooth other matters, according to one senior House Republican who was granted anonymity to speak freely about internal conversations.
And with that border bill in flux, so too is the Judiciary Committee’s long-anticipated hearing on it.
Roy, who sits on Judiciary, said he still expects the panel to take up his bill next week.
“There have been some conversations about figuring out timing. But look, the bill’s been ready. It continues to be ready. We ought to bring it up next week,” Roy said in an interview. While he declined to speak about his conversations with Gonzales, he said he believed GOP leaders would ultimately back him.
“I expect leadership to get fully behind it, and do what they need to do,” Roy said. “I expect we’ll vote on it next week. This is why leadership gets paid the big bucks. It’s their game now.”
While Roy and Gonzales have seemingly hit pause on their recent Twitter brawling, Republicans are skeptical that the two have closed the gap on their policy differences.
“I don’t think it changed anything. I mean, they are on different ends of the spectrum,” the senior House Republican said, adding that one possible solution getting discussed is to pursue “separate bills, and see which one has more support.”
Gonzales indicated that his colleague was correct, declining to confirm that leadership has intervened in his dispute with Roy and responding: “I try not to waste my time with people that try to waste my time.”
“Look, I have spent a lot of time being a reasonable actor in this whole deal. And I’m dealing with people that aren’t reasonable actors,” Gonzales added. “So guess what? The rules of the game have changed and the border security package that’s in Homeland Security has a long way to go before it gets my support.”
This undesirable option comes as the timeline to move on border policy is narrowing, with Republicans saying they need to start moving. The more pressing matter, though, is the GOP’s education bill, which will hit the floor later Thursday.
Days before that floor debate, McCarthy and his leadership team privately fielded concerns from multiple conference members about possible “poison pill” amendments, such as those relating to LGBTQ students or banning books. Some of those Republicans were under pressure from groups like the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, which opposes the “parents’ bill of rights” proposal and supports some centrist GOP lawmakers.
Another House Republican, this one closely allied with leadership, said members threatened a potential “jail break” before leadership addressed worries among various members had that the bill would disrupt the principle of federalism. This GOP member said leadership “substantially” reduced members’ concerns, particularly by telling them that the bill was designed to give parents information about theoretical rights rather than to directly interfere in local matters.
“Leadership has been aggressive in beating back the substantial concerns members had about federalism,” this Republican said, also addressing internal discussions candidly on condition of anonymity.
As the vote nears, GOP leaders believe they have resolved many of their internal concerns with the roughly 20 amendments from both parties that are expected to receive floor votes.
Still, Republicans will be watching a pair of amendments closely, both from Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.): One states that parents must be informed if a school’s athletic programs allow transgender girls to play on a gender identity-aligned sports team, while the other requires parents to be informed if a transgender girl is allowed to use gender identity-aligned bathrooms.