House conservatives got their revenge on Kevin McCarthy in the pettiest way possible

It was supposed to be a simple procedural vote. House Republican leadership didn’t expect any problems when it tried to bring a pair of bills to protect gas stoves to the floor Tuesday. Instead, the bills went down in flames — by a vote of 206 to 220 — and it was members of their own caucus who had torched them.

What transpired was the very petty revenge of a group of 11 far-right members who are still mad that the debt ceiling was lifted last week. In reaching a deal with President Joe Biden, they argued, Speaker Kevin McCarthy had ignored the agreement with far-right holdouts that let him obtain the speaker’s gavel in the first place. And while the bills the 11 malcontents torched were relatively minor, more obstruction could be brewing from them on the back burner.

While the bills the 11 malcontents torched were relatively minor, more obstruction could be brewing from them on the back burner.

The specific vehicle for their vengeance was a vote on a “special rule,” which allows a bill to bypass the normal House schedule and be brought up for a quick debate and vote. Usually, unless the bill is noncontroversial, the majority coughs up the needed votes while the minority votes against. That dynamic is part of what made the rule vote on the debt ceiling bill last week so unusual, requiring over 50 Democrats whose votes had been held in reserve to cast their votes at the last minute to prevent it from tanking.

Until Tuesday, there was no sign of a far-right revolt on this bill. One concession the far right won in negotiating with McCarthy, R-Calif., in January was landing more House Freedom Caucus members on the Rules Committee. (Republicans hold nine seats on the panel to the Democrats’ four.) Two of those members — Chip Roy of Texas and Ralph Norman of South Carolina — had voted against sending the debt ceiling bill to the floor when it was before the Rules Committee last week. But they backed the gas stoves bills when the rule came up for a vote Monday.

That changed Tuesday when it became clear that there was trouble. In a floor speech before the vote, Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., accused the GOP leadership of retaliating for his vote against the debt ceiling rule last week. He alleged that his bill on pistol stabilizing braces was prevented from hitting the floor this week. Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., denied that was the case before the vote, according to Politico, but was still left in “animated conversation” with members of the group who sank the vote as the drama unfolded.

The 11 who voted against advancing the gas stoves bills included Roy and Norman, who, I have to stress, had supported the rule out of committee just the day before. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., told reporters after the vote that the revolt occurred “because we’re frustrated at the way this place is operating.” He also accused McCarthy of violating “the fundamental commitments that allowed [him] to assume the speakership” in reaching the debt ceiling deal; the full details of said commitments have never been made public.

Again, a rule vote’s failing like this is something that almost never happens in the House. This was apparently the first time a procedure rule vote for debate had failed since 2002, Politico reported, citing the Congressional Research Service. Unlike the debt ceiling bill, though, the stakes here were extremely low. The bills were unlikely to be taken up in the Senate, let alone reach Biden’s desk, making them primarily about messaging around yet another ridiculous Fox News-fueled outrage of the week.

It’s a far cry from the bluster that we’d seen before the debt ceiling deal, when McCarthy’s job seemed more at risk.

So, what to make of this mini-revolution? It’s a far cry from the bluster that we’d seen before the debt ceiling deal, when McCarthy’s job seemed more at risk. None of the holdouts Tuesday suggested that a move to oust the speaker was coming in the immediate future. Instead, the intention may have been to remind McCarthy in the aftermath of his deal with Biden how much he needs the right wing of his caucus to keep the House running. Gaetz called it a play “to reassert House conservatives as the appropriate coalition partner for our leadership, instead of them making common cause with Democrats.” And as Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., asked after the vote: “How can you govern if you can’t pass a rule?”

It’s a fair question, especially when you consider what lies ahead for GOP leaders. The debt deal’s spending caps may have set the topline budget for the next two years, but the bulk of the House’s annual appropriations work still waits to be done. And Senate Republicans are already pressuring McCarthy to work around the caps to boost defense spending, which most Freedom Caucus members wouldn’t necessarily support.

As it stands in the aftermath of the debt deal, the Freedom Caucus is showing itself to be weakened but determined not to be taken for granted. And because the terms of its deal with McCarthy in January were never actually made public, it can continue to accuse the speaker of violating the agreement whenever it wants to cudgel him for not being as extreme as it would like. It’s a pretty sweet spot for these flamethrowers to be in — and it’ll be worth watching to see whether tensions boil over as more consequential bills move to the floor and the stakes grow higher.

Hayes Brown

Hayes Brown is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily.

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