Soon after House Speaker Kevin McCarthy cliched the speakership, some of his allies began to fret: How the hell was he going to live up to all the promises he’d made to conservatives to win their support?
How, in particular, would the California Republican pass a budget that would balance within 10 years — a tricky feat even before he took cuts to Social Security and Medicare off the table?
Now, McCarthy’s chickens are coming home to roost. Under pressure from President Joe Biden and a rapidly approaching debt limit deadline, Republicans are struggling to unite behind a fiscal blueprint. Some worry they may not release any budget — let alone one that balances in a decade, let alone one that can pass.
Instead of owning up to failure, McCarthy appears to be looking for a scapegoat.
Behind the scenes, he’s been trash-talking his own GOP colleagues, according to a blockbuster New York Times story Thursday by Jonathan Swan and Annie Karni.
Among its revelations: McCarthy has “no confidence” in House Budget Chair Jodey Arrington (R-Texas), whom he regards as “incompetent” and considers House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) “ineffective, checked out and reluctant to take a position on anything.”
Conversations with more than a half-dozen senior Republican lawmakers and aides revealed some additional context on the “Mean Girls” drama playing out in McCarthy’s leadership circle:
There’s a reason McCarthy is singling out Arrington and Scalise, and it’s about more than just disagreements over policy or strategy. People close to McCarthy tell us that he perceives both men as disloyal — and he’s known to hold a grudge.
McCarthy never forgave Scalise for an incident years ago when the Louisiana Republican refused to rule out challenging McCarthy for GOP leader, and he feels that Scalise didn’t do enough to help him win the gavel this year. As for Arrington, the Texas Republican privately floated Scalise for speaker when McCarthy was unable to lock down the votes for himself in January.
McCarthy’s issues with Arrington have been apparent for a while. Several weeks ago, when Arrington suggested Republicans wouldn’t introduce a budget until May, McCarthy pushed back and said they’d do so in April — leaving Arrington’s staff scrambling to clean up the mess.
Something similar happened when Arrington told reporters that Republicans were finalizing a debt ceiling offer of sorts, what he dubbed a “deal sheet,” for Biden. “I don’t know what he’s talking about,” McCarthy shot back when asked about Arrington’s comments.
That jab caught several senior Republicans off guard, not just because McCarthy was publicly rebuking one of his own chairs but because the speaker was, in fact, already crafting an opening offer of sorts to Biden that was soon publicly released.
McCarthy’s defenders say that Arrington, a fiscal conservative with a reputation for wanting to move quickly, is stirring up trouble in the conference. They argue that McCarthy has to protect his frontliners and that Arrington hasn’t been sensitive enough to their political needs. They also note that some in the GOP leadership have been unimpressed with Arrington’s private budget presentations.
But Arrington’s defenders say it’s unfair for McCarthy to blame him. They note that it’s odd for the speaker to call him “incompetent” despite repeatedly asking him to give presentations on fiscal matters to Republicans at both the House GOP leadership retreat earlier this year and the full GOP conference retreat in Orlando a few days ago. (At the latter, there was little pushback on a menu of options Arrington presented, and some members even stood to praise his proposals.)
Another Arrington defender noted that GOP leadership is typically involved in drafting the budget given how difficult it can be to muster support on the chamber floor — especially with a slim, five-seat majority like the Republicans currently have. And yet McCarthy has given little guidance to Arrington, according to a senior GOP aide.
“Jodey has been working in good faith, and has largely been hamstrung by Kevin,” the aide said. “They need someone else to blame.”
Republicans we spoke to found McCarthy’s lack of pushback on the Times story to be quite conspicuous. McCarthy, they note, rarely speaks ill of his members in meetings, and if he does, it rarely leaks. His paltry response did not go unnoticed.
“He made a bunch of promises during the speaker race that were always untenable, but he made them anyway,” one senior Republican said. “At a certain point, a lot of that stuff is going to collide, and he’s getting nervous and looking for others to blame.”
Senior Republicans always knew that passing a budget with a slim majority was going to be difficult. But the interesting part of all this palace intrigue is that it’s not factions inside the rank-and-file causing the problems; it’s McCarthy’s own leadership team that’s in disarray.
That doesn’t bode well for House Republicans’ budget efforts — or their bid to extract concessions from Biden on the debt ceiling. And without a unified GOP front, Democrats won’t take Republican demands for spending cuts seriously.
“Allies of @SpeakerMcCarthy trying to cast blame on others — before there is any actual blame to cast — doesn’t instill confidence House Rs are ready for primetime,” the Washington Post’s Paul Kane tweeted Thursday.