U.S. Rep. Chip Roy emerges as key GOP agitator in U.S. House speaker fight

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, speaks with reporters as he departs the House floor after House representatives held their third vote for House speaker on the first day of the 118th Congress on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. The House adjourned without a speaker voted in. (Michael Mccoy For The Texas Tribune, Michael Mccoy For The Texas Tribune)

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Chip Roy is showing no signs of backing down in his fight to overhaul Congress, even as he’s facing off against the most powerful members of his party to do so.

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The boisterous Austin Republican continued to issue impassioned pleas from the House floor Tuesday afternoon urging a shake-up of his party’s leadership and pressing for changes to rules that he says keeps the power of Congress in the hands of a small group of party leaders. Roy’s stand, along with the protests from a vocal group of roughly 20 other right-wing Republicans including two Texans, blocked his party from being able to select a Speaker on Tuesday — the first time in a century the House was unable to select its leader on the first try.

The stalemate is angering other Republicans, who fear it is self-sabotage before the party can even swear in its own members. Without a speaker, rules for the House’s day-to-day business cannot be determined, staffers could go without paychecks and laws cannot be passed. Committee assignments also remain in flux, including a handful of chairmanships that Texans are gunning for. The speaker is the third-highest-ranking elected official in the country, second in line to the presidency. The House will vote again and again until it is able to find one person who can get a simple majority to be speaker.

But to Roy, the delay is worth it. For once, the entire House was physically together in the chamber to debate, just as he feels it should be.

“What we’re doing is exercising our right to vote and having a debate and have a discussion about the future of this country through the decision of choosing a speaker,” Roy said from the floor.

Roy insisted that “this is not personal” and his stance isn’t out of devotion or derision for any particular member. He first voted for Florida’s Byron Donalds, a relatively new representative and fellow member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, only to later switch to supporting U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, a conservative standard bearer who has come out to support McCarthy.

Despite Roy’s insistence that nothing is personal, other members are less sure. McCarthy and other establishment Republicans offered considerable concessions to the more conservative members in order to gain their support, but still were rebuffed. U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said McCarthy asked holdouts during a party meeting Tuesday what else they could possibly give them “and they couldn’t answer the question.”

“They say it’s not about [McCarthy] personally, but when you’re giving them everything they want in the rules packet, I don’t know what else it could be,” McCaul said.

The House adjourned on Tuesday evening after three historic votes. By the last vote of the evening, McCarthy lost a supporter.

U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, said on Fox News that the debacle makes the party look “foolish.” Roy responded in his own Fox appearance Tuesday that he is “not blinking.”

“I will always fight to put the American people first, not a few individuals that want something for themselves,” McCarthy told reporters Tuesday after a final GOP conference meeting Tuesday before the new Congress convened.

U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Victoria, and incoming freshman U.S. Rep. Keith Self, R-Plano, also voted for Jordan, with the rest of the Texas Republicans voting for McCarthy.

McCarthy led his party through the last four years in the minority, and there is no candidate with nearly the same amount of support among the conference. If his speakership bid completely crumbles and the stalemate continues, the fallout would deal a substantial blow to public confidence in the already polarized House.

But Roy and his allies say the confidence is already lost. A major driving force in their discontent in leadership is the party’s underwhelming performance in last year’s midterm elections, despite near-universal predictions of a knockout year. Roy said the lackluster electoral performance was a clarion call from voters fed up with a Congress unable to put into place sweeping conservative priorities on immigration, energy and competitiveness with China.

“You’re calling for unity? How about we unify around something meaningful? Like actually having a House of Representatives and a bunch of Republicans in a conference that are united to actually stand up for the people and do what we said we would do when we came here?” he told reporters.

Democrats ribbed Republicans for their lack of unity on the House floor Tuesday, but the consequences of legislating are front of mind as well. U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said the fraught voting highlighted the difficult job the next speaker will have governing and called it “mostly sad.”

“This hasn’t happened in generations, right? Literally have not seen this in generations,” Castro said. “But to me, it represents the the downward evolution, I guess, the devolution of the Republican Party since Donald Trump came along.”

The internal GOP fight has been going on for months. During a November internal party meeting, Roy nominated fellow right-wing member Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, to be speaker, with Cloud seconding the nomination. The majority of the caucus still voted for McCarthy in the meeting. It wasn’t Roy’s first time disrupting the expected course during his party’s leadership elections. Following the ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, as the No. 3 House Republican in 2021, Roy swooped in to make an 11th-hour challenge to Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New Yorker loyal to former President Donald Trump, for the spot. The former president issued a withering rebuke against Roy, and he lost the partywide bid by a wide margin.

Conservative activists close to the Freedom Caucus said Biggs was never the real end goal as an alternate speaker and was largely a placeholder to break McCarthy's momentum until another contender could garner enough support. Despite Jordan's vocal support for McCarthy in the past several months, his name has been floated as a contender, as has McCarthy's number 2, Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

But unlike November’s party meeting, Tuesday’s vote included the entire chamber, with Democrats united in voting against McCarthy. If he can’t draw more of his own party members to support him, he’ll be short of the 218-vote majority needed to win the gavel.

Before Tuesday's vote, McCarthy scrambled for weeks to secure the support of the remaining holdouts, meeting with Roy and other Freedom Caucus members to go over their complaints with how Congress is run. McCarthy offered rule changes over the weekend meant to address several of the conservative demands, including lowering the threshold of members needed to force a no-confidence vote of the speaker to just five members. Roy and the rest of the Freedom Caucus had been pushing to allow just one member to force a vote that could oust the speaker.

“The debate is just some simple one: Should a member of the body be able to make a motion and then have the body execute on the motion?” Roy said last month. “That’s the question.”

It was one of the biggest concessions McCarthy could give and one he was particularly slow to budge on. Lowering the threshold further would mean two years of immense leverage among his opponents within a party that already has massive philosophical divisions on major policy priorities, including government funding and continued assistance for Ukraine.

McCarthy and Roy saw some agreement in their virulent opposition to the $1.7 trillion omnibus bill that passed last December to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. The package was a laundry list of everything Roy hates about Washington — the over 4,000-page legislation spanned hundreds of priorities largely negotiated behind closed doors and included continued funding to assist Ukraine — an issue dividing House Republicans, with Roy and other conservatives opposing.

House Republicans presented a relatively united front against the measure. Fort Worth Rep. Kay Granger, the top House Republican appropriations negotiator, dipped out of talks over objections to the amount of non-defense spending.

The deal ended up being an agreement between Democrats and Senate Republicans, with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, heralding it as helping Texas by increasing defense spending by 10%, boosting Border Patrol, offering funding for agriculture drought relief and investing in grants to tackle school violence. Cornyn was the only Texas Republican in Congress to vote for the package.

But Roy’s objections went further. He and 30 other Republicans in or incoming to the House vowed to stonewall any priorities put forward by Senate Republicans who voted for the omnibus package, writing in a letter to the upper chamber that “for at least nine months, this omnibus will deny the incoming House GOP majority any leverage to enact crucial policy changes needed to secure our border through the power of the purse.”

Roy also has a history of putting up a fight against legislation through tactics his peers decried as onerous, including forcing a lengthy series of roll call votes on a $1 trillion spending package in 2019 that prolonged passage into the early morning hours. He is armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of legislative procedure from his time as chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz.

Roy and the rest of the Freedom Caucus are demanding that new Republican leadership do away with bulk legislative packages like the omnibus all together. The bills, which can stretch thousands of pages, are rife with priorities that legislators could not possibly sift through, they argue, and that never see daylight through debate on the House floor. McCarthy’s rules proposal includes a measure that would require members to keep bills to a single subject, but it does not have any robust enforcement.

“As such, we reiterate that if any omnibus passes in the remaining days of this Congress, we will oppose and whip opposition to any legislative priority of those senators who vote for its passage — including the Republican leader,” they wrote. “We will oppose any rule, any consent request, suspension voice vote, or roll call vote of any such Senate bill, and will otherwise do everything in our power to thwart even the smallest legislative and policy efforts of those senators.”

Reps. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, and Ronny Jackson, R-Amarillo, also signed the letter, as did outgoing Reps. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, and Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios. Self, of Plano, also signed on.

McCarthy signaled his support for the effort, tweeting last month that “when I’m Speaker, their bills will be dead on arrival in the House if this nearly $2T monstrosity is allowed to move forward over our objections and the will of the American people.”

But for all of McCarthy’s concessions to the right flank, he was still not able to convert enough members to have a comfortable majority in time for Tuesday’s vote. After he revealed his rules proposals, nine House Republicans including Roy released a statement on New Year’s Day that the proposals didn’t go far enough to assuage their concerns, though they made progress.

“At this stage, it cannot be a surprise that expressions of vague hopes reflected in far too many of the crucial points still under debate are insufficient,” the members said. “This is especially true with respect to Mr. McCarthy’s candidacy for speaker because the times call for radical departure from the status quo — not a continuation of past, and ongoing, Republican failures.”

Following his initial vote Tuesday, Cloud said in a statement that "many of the promises made [on rules changes] lacked enforcement mechanisms necessary to ensure their implementation, casting doubt on the sincerity of reforms.” When the chamber went into another round of voting, Cloud revoted for Jordan.

Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania, said in a statement Tuesday morning that McCarthy rebuffed the group’s request for promised votes on a border security plan created by Texas Republican members, balancing the budget, a phase-out of funding for the IRS and term limits for Congress.

Other rules McCarthy put forward include the end of proxy voting and set the stage for new investigations into the Biden administration and the Jan. 6 committee, but McCarthy had been indicating his intention to do so for months. The Californian also characterized several Freedom Caucus demands as largely self-interested, including plum committee assignments for the group's members.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, who led the House Rules Committee in the last Congress, lamented McCarthy’s proposal as targeting civil servants and regressing on accommodations made to make the chamber run more practically during a pandemic.

“Republican leaders have once again caved to the most extreme members of their own caucus: allowing the far-right to hold the incoming Speaker hostage,” McGovern said in a statement. “The American people elected a divided government because they want us to put people over politics and operate in a bipartisan way — not empower extremists who have no interest in working together to get things done.”

Correction, Jan. 3, 2023: A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro as a Republican. Castro is a Democrat.

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