WASHINGTON (AP) — In a nearly forgotten piece of marble real estate in the Capitol, the Kevin McCarthy era is taking shape in Congress.
It was here that the new speaker of the House of Representatives chatted last week with Donald Trump Jr. on the podcast of the former president’s son, their laughter poured down the halls from behind closed doors. And it was in this unassuming outpost, with its expansive views of the National Mall and easy proximity to the action on the House floor, that the California Republican leader had met with his lieutenants to broker deals in the grueling race to become speaker. .
Away from the glare of the speaker’s official office, McCarthy takes on some of the most exciting yet difficult leadership tasks. But McCarthy is also facing the limits of his meager hold on power as promises of a new style of running the House collide with the harsh realities of governing.
Last week, an immigration bill that should be easy work for a Republican party seeking to close the US border with Mexico was shelved for swift action, sent back to committees for amendment.
A Republican proposal for a 23% national sales tax to replace the income tax rose and quickly fell out of favor, turning into a punch line for President Joe Biden’s attacks on extreme elements in the GOP.
McCarthy expelled two prominent Democrats, Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell of California, from the House Intelligence Committee, but his promise to rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., from the House Foreign Affairs Committee met with opposition from a few Republicans.
“Look,” McCarthy told The Associated Press as he fanned the halls, indicating he had the votes to remove Somali-born Omar.
Three weeks into the new Republican majority, the risks to McCarthy’s leadership style are clearly mounting: In the interest of opening up the legislative process, with more seats at the table for far-right lawmakers, the GOP agenda will be subject to protracted debates and delays — and the chance that nothing will happen at all.
McCarthy seemed in good spirits as he left the Trump podcast, brushing off the scrapes over the immigration law and other issues as part of the process with his bottom-up governance.
“I don’t see that as a risk,” McCarthy said.
“Say you took the bill here early, but it’s just not perfect,” he said. “I want to do well.”
So far, Republicans have passed about 10 bills through the House, including one abortion-related measure that was a party priority. Some other bills and resolutions had overwhelming bipartisan support, largely symbolic actions, including one to praise Iranian human rights protesters.
But several of the top proposals that Republicans had lined up for speedy approval as part of their rule package have stalled amid disagreements between the far-right Freedom Caucus and pragmatic conservatives. As McCarthy celebrated his birthday with a visit from Elon Musk at the Capitol, lawmakers engaged in a two-day debate over a routine oil and gas lease bill.
“At some point they have to go to the bar, make a decision and go,” said Rep. South Carolina’s James Clyburn, the veteran Democratic leader and former housewhip.
As part of the House opening process, lawmakers dove into a no-strings-attached debate on Thursday over an oil and gas lease bill that would limit the president’s ability to tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, as Biden did during rising fuel prices, without first a The Department of Energy plans to increase resource production on federal lands.
One of the first amendments came from Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Republican from Georgia, who used her precious few minutes of debate to also mention that she was the first in Congress to introduce legislation calling for Biden’s impeachment.
“The people’s house has been broken for far too long,” she said, praising the new system.
But House Republicans acknowledge some grumbling from their voters at home about the slow start of their new majority. The speaker’s protracted race consumed the first week of the new Congress, as McCarthy endured 15 votes before finally grabbing the gavel.
Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, said he heard from a caller to his office demanding to know why House Republicans had not yet launched an investigation into Biden’s son Hunter.
“Everyone gets so emotional,” Nehls said.
“Let’s just breathe a little. Take a step back,” he said. “Let’s develop the situation and see what comes out of these committees.”
But the challenges facing the Republican majority in the House are both philosophical and organizational.
The immigration bill proposed by Rep. Texas’ Chip Roy should be an easier elevator, centered in the GOP’s political wheelhouse of priorities that oppress migrants at the border.
Pressed by the Freedom Caucus member, the legislation would require the Homeland Security Secretary to deny migrants, including asylum seekers, conditional entry into the US without valid documents, instead holding them in detention.
The immigration bill had been given the go-ahead in the house rules package for action, but was met with opposition from the pragmatic wing of conservative Republicans of the Main Street caucus.
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a former chairman of that group, who calls themselves conservatives who want to rule, said he and others were overheard by colleagues to let McCarthy’s team know that some were concerned about the immigration bill and the bill for a national sales tax.
“These things have to go through committee,” Bacon told reporters at the Capitol.
Still, McCarthy’s efforts to open up the legislative process have attracted interest from Democrats and Republicans alike, as lawmakers have offered dozens of amendments to the Oil and Gas Drilling Act in a first test of the new system.
“We’re about to do something we haven’t done in a long time,” Representative Steve Womack, R-Ark., who presided over the chamber Thursday night, announced as he kicked off the rapid-fire vote. “Vote for two minutes!”
Cheers erupted from lawmakers.
Twenty-four amendment votes later, around dinner time.
Lawmakers were at it again Friday, passing several dozen more amendments for a quick two-minute vote before Republicans pushed the oil and gas bill to pass, almost strictly on party line with only 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 to veto.