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The GOP’s 'chaos caucus' isn’t done breaking things

Last week's tantrum over the debt ceiling deal is just the start of Kevin McCarthy's headaches.

For one brief moment, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., must have thought things were going his way. He had managed to hammer out a deal with President Joe Biden that avoided disastrous default on the country’s debt yet won the support of the vast majority of his caucus. And then came last week’s backlash from the right, paralyzing the House floor and leaving McCarthy’s leadership team sniping at one another over who was to blame.

What was striking about the rebellion — which was at least temporarily resolved this week — is how effective it was in blockading GOP priorities, even though less than a dozen members took part. At the start of McCarthy’s speakership, it was clear that the far right would be a threat to his success, but last week’s rebels were only a small part of the 43-member House Freedom Caucus. And this “chaos caucus” has promised that it won’t let up on McCarthy until its demands are met. Just don’t ask exactly what those demands are.

As I wrote last week, discontent over the debt ceiling deal led 11 Republicans to join with Democrats in blocking a so-called special rule that would have allowed a set of bills about protecting gas stoves to jump to the top of the House’s legislative agenda. The bills themselves are relatively inconsequential, since they won’t pass the Democratic-led Senate or get Biden’s signature. But the rebels’ votes were meant to vent their anger that McCarthy had dared to compromise on the House’s original debt ceiling plan and its massive spending cuts. Some chaos caucus members also claimed that McCarthy reneged on promises he made when he was seeking the speakership in January, such as consulting with the far right during the debt ceiling negotiations and keeping its priorities at the forefront of the House’s must-pass bills this year.

What was striking about the rebellion is how effective it was in blockading GOP priorities, even though less than a dozen members took part.

The final debt deal included a set of caps on military and domestic spending that are pegged to the current fiscal year. The chaos caucus — which includes Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Chip Roy of Texas in its ranks — insists that those caps be treated as a ceiling with room for further cuts, rather than as a target to be met. That’s not at all how Democrats see the deal, and it would surely prompt a clash down the road that could make the appropriations process much, much more difficult. For now, though, McCarthy seems willing to play ball. He emerged from an hourlong meeting with the rebels on Monday to announce a tentative deal that allowed the gas stoves bills and a few others to reach the floor.

But in a repeat of closed-door haggling in January, neither side was willing to say exactly what had been agreed to. It’s a risky choice, given how much of a headache it has been for the GOP leadership as Gaetz, Roy and others have repeatedly accused McCarthy of violating the terms of the January agreement. If the far right doesn’t like what it sees, another takeover of the House floor remains firmly on the table. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., stressed as much, promising that “there’s gonna be fights. There’s a lot more fights down the road.”

We can at least assume that Monday’s agreement was a factor in the announcement by House Appropriations Committee Chair Kay Granger, R-Texas, later that night that her committee would be marking up spending bills pegged to fiscal year 2022, rather than this year. In total, that would result in $119 billion below the spending caps McCarthy and Biden agreed to, according to Roll Call.

It’s a win for the chaos caucus — but even those reductions might not be enough to satisfy its push for even deeper cuts. And beyond “less spending,” it’s not entirely clear what it wants. It’s the far-right version of a bargaining position that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., brought to negotiations over the Biden economic agenda. While I was frustrated with Sinema’s focus on the topline number — “big number get smaller,” as I put it at the time — at least that was a debate over how many more people the government could help. The chaos caucus members want that number to shrink substantially, no matter how many of their constituents it hurts.

Their demands also could grow even further, to the frustration of (relatively) more pragmatic Republicans. Tellingly, Gaetz emerged from the meeting on Monday insisting that McCarthy live up to a “power-sharing agreement” with the far right that the speaker had promised, a framing McCarthy has rejected. “If there’s not a renegotiated power-sharing agreement, then perhaps we’ll be back here next week,” Gaetz warned, according to NBC News.

For now, though, there’s not much McCarthy can do to placate the chaos caucus, let alone subdue it.

That so few troublemakers could present so many problems reflects McCarthy’s extremely narrow majority. The rebels don’t even have the full Freedom Caucus standing behind them. Though the Freedom Caucus provided most of the Republican votes against the final debt ceiling deal, several prominent members — including Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan of Ohio and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia — are McCarthy allies who cast their votes in favor. But with Democrats united against the GOP’s most partisan priorities, even a handful of members can be the tipping point between victory and defeat. And the chaos caucus is more than willing to block what its members can sell to the party’s base as a principled stand against compromise with the enemy.

While the intraparty fighting might seem like a good time for schadenfreude for Democrats, it’s set to have serious consequences. McCarthy and Granger’s caving in to demands for spending cuts beyond the debt ceiling deal makes the threat of a government shutdown this fall all the more real. And under the terms of the deal, should a continuing resolution be in place to fund the government at the start of 2024, a 1% cut in all military and domestic spending would go into effect, something that neither side’s leadership is exactly keen to have happen.

For now, though, there’s not much McCarthy can do to placate the chaos caucus, let alone subdue it. It has no real leader, no real clear set of goals and nothing to lose. Any attempts to punish it will be ineffective without the votes in the caucus to back it, even if McCarthy continues to control over 90% of his members. And should McCarthy turn once more to Democrats to supply the votes needed to keep the country open and running, well, that’s just more fuel for the chaos caucus to continue to wreak havoc on his speakership.