WASHINGTON – In an almost forgotten slice of marbled real estate at the Capitol, the Kevin McCarthy era is taking shape in Congress.
It was here that the new House speaker was chatting last week with Donald Trump Jr. on the former president’s son’s podcast, their laughter spilling into the halls from behind closed doors. And it was in this modest outpost, with its grand vistas of the National Mall and easy proximity to the action on House floor, that the Republican leader from California had met with his lieutenants brokering deals in the grueling race to become speaker.
Away from the glare of the speaker’s official office, McCarthy is conducting some of the most exhilarating but also difficult business of leadership. Yet McCarthy is also confronting the limits of his slim hold on power as the promises of a new style of running the House run into the hard realities of governing.
This past week, an immigration bill that was supposed to be easy work for a Republican Party intent on sealing the U.S. border with Mexico was shelved for quick action, kicked back to committees for changes.
A Republican proposal for a 23% national sales tax that would take the place of income taxes rose and quickly fell from favor, turned into a punchline for President Joe Biden’s attacks on extreme elements in the GOP.
McCarthy booted two prominent Democrats, Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell of California, from the House Intelligence Committee, but his promise to oust Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., from the House Foreign Affairs Committee ran into resistance from a couple of Republicans.
“You watch,” McCarthy told The Associated Press as breezed through the halls, signaling he had the votes in hand to remove the Somali-born Omar.
Three weeks into the new Republican majority, the risks of McCarthy’s leadership style are clearly taking hold: In the interest of opening up the legislative process, with more seats at the table for far-right lawmakers, the GOP agenda will be subjected to prolonged debates and delays — and the chance that nothing gets done at all.
McCarthy appeared upbeat as he exited the Trump podcast, brushing off the scrapes over the immigration bill and others as part of the process with his bottom-up way of governing.
“I don’t view that as at risk," McCarthy said.
“Say you passed the bill early here, but it just it’s not perfect,” he said. “I want to get it right.”
So far, Republicans have been able to get about 10 pieces of legislation through the House, including one abortion-related measure that was a party priority. Some other bills and resolutions had sweeping bipartisan backing, largely symbolic actions including one to commend Iranian human rights protesters.
But several of the top proposals the Republicans lined up for quick passage as part of their rules package have stalled out amid differences between the hard-right Freedom Caucus and pragmatic conservatives. As McCarthy celebrated his birthday with a visit from Elon Musk at the Capitol, lawmakers were grinding through a two-day debate on a routine oil-and-gas leasing bill.
“At some point in time, they have to belly up to the bar, make a decision, and go,” said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the seasoned Democratic leader and former House whip.
As part of the opening up the House process, lawmakers on Thursday dove into a freewheeling debate over an oil and gas leasing bill that would limit the president's ability to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, as Biden did during soaring fuel prices, without first developing an Energy Department plan to increase resource production on federal lands.
One of the first amendments came from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Georgia Republican who used her precious few minutes of debate to also mention she was the first in Congress to file legislation calling for Biden’s impeachment.
“The people's House has been broken for too long,” she said, extolling the new system.
But House Republicans acknowledge some grumblings from their constituents back home at the slow start to their new majority. The prolonged speaker's race consumed the first week of the new Congress as McCarthy endured 15 votes before finally seizing the gavel.
Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, said he heard from a caller to his office demanding to know why House Republicans hadn’t yet launched investigations into Biden’s son Hunter.
“Everybody gets so emotional,” Nehls said.
“Let’s just breathe a little bit. Take a step back," he said. "Let’s develop the situation and see what comes out of these committees.”
But the challenges ahead for the House Republican majority are as much philosophical as organizational.
The immigration bill proposed by Rep. Chip Roy of Texas was supposed to be an easier lift, centered in the GOP’s political wheelhouse of priorities clamping down on migrants at the border.
Pushed by the Freedom Caucus member, the legislation would require the Homeland Security zecretary to deny migrants, including those seeking asylum, conditional entry into the U.S. without valid documents, instead holding them in detention.
The immigration bill had been green-lighted in the House rules package for action, but it ran into resistance from the pragmatic wing of conservative Republicans from the Main Street caucus.
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a former chairman of that group, which calls itself conservatives who want to govern, said he and others were tapped by colleagues to notify McCarthy's team that some had concerns with the immigration bill as well as the proposed legislation for a national sales tax.
“These things got to go through committee,” Bacon told reporters at the Capitol.
Still, McCarthy’s efforts to open up the legislating process have drawn interest from Democrats as well as Republicans, as lawmakers offered dozens of amendments to the oil and gas drilling bill in a first test of the new system.
“We are about to do something we haven't done in a long time,” announced Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., who was presiding over the chamber late Thursday, as he gaveled the start of rapid-fire voting. “Two minute votes!”
Cheers erupted from the lawmakers.
Twenty four amendment votes later, they wrapped by dinnertime.
Lawmakers were back at it on Friday, another several dozen amendments for rapid two-minute voting, before Republicans pushed the oil and gas bill to passage, almost strictly on party line with just one Democrat joining.
But the bill has almost no chance of becoming law.
It is unlikely to be considered in the Senate. And Biden has threatened a veto.