WASHINGTON — The rebellion against Representative Kevin McCarthy of California and his bid for the speakership is rooted not just in personal animosity, but in a deeply ideological drive by a group of hard-right conservatives to drastically limit the size, scope and reach of the federal government, and overhaul the way Congress works to make it easier to do so.
The dissidents challenging Mr. McCarthy have pressed for a balanced federal budget — one that would not permit any deficit spending. They want special rules that would make it easier for lawmakers to zero out federal offices and fire government workers, and would make it much harder to secure earmarks to direct federal money to individual projects. The group is also seeking to heavily fortify the U.S. border with Mexico and dismantle the Internal Revenue Service, getting rid of federal income taxes and replacing them with a consumption tax.
“My personal belief is and that of many of my colleagues is if you don’t stop spending money that we don’t have to fund the bureaucracy that is undermining the American people, we cannot win,” said Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas and a leading McCarthy opponent. “This town is badly broken, and we need to fix it.”
To further their policy goals, the hard-right lawmakers have also long pushed for overhauling the way the House operates to give individual rank-and-file members more influence over what legislation is considered.
Conservatives have consistently griped about the top-down power structure that has flourished in the House since Newt Gingrich, a Republican and former speaker, took over the post in 1995 and sought to undercut efforts to negotiate deals and pass legislation by consolidating power in the speaker’s suite.
The movement to scale back the size of government has been a central tenet of the Republican Party for decades, but it intensified in Congress during the Obama years with the rise of the Tea Party as Republicans demanded spending curbs in exchange for raising the federal debt limit. With President Donald J. Trump in office, they retreated from that campaign and increased the debt limit without conditions, an approach that the new House majority is certain to oppose this year. But Republicans seized on Mr. Trump’s populist message, casting the government as a “swamp” of elitists that did not respond to the needs of ordinary Americans.
Many Republicans have argued that the way the House works exacerbates the problem, and they have devoted themselves to figuring out ways to throw sand in the gears.
A New Congress Begins
The 118th Congress opened on Jan. 3, with Republicans taking control of the House and Democrats holding the Senate.
“It’s all about the ability — empowering us to stop the machine in this town from doing what it does,” Mr. Roy said on Wednesday.
There is some legitimacy to the claim that rank-and-file lawmakers have been cut out of most high-level deal-making. The crush of work and the inability to meet deadlines have led to House and Senate leaders making huge legislative agreements among themselves and then forcing approval with little time for review.
The latest example was last month’s passage of a roughly $1.7 trillion government spending package that was thrust upon most lawmakers in the final days of work before Christmas, with little opportunity to scrutinize the details.
“America knows that Washington is broken,” Representative Paul Gosar, one of the ringleaders of the speaker mutiny, said on Tuesday in pushing for the election of Representative Andy Biggs, a fellow Arizona Republican. “A wise person once told me that a good process builds good policy, builds good politics. We have to return to them.”
While Mr. McCarthy had already pledged a series of changes intended to give the rank and file a greater say in the process, the holdouts want commitments to embrace their policy agenda and give them powerful spots on congressional committees, things he has refused to do. They also want him to cease funding primary challengers in open Republican races, essentially promising not to try to knock out a right-wing conservative candidate with a more mainstream one, as he has often tried to do.
The hard-right Republicans have received encouragement from small-government, anti-tax groups such as the Club for Growth, which officially urged the party to reject any speaker candidate who did not back rules changes that “will provide transformational reforms to the House, build a bold pro-growth legislative agenda, and restore the individual rights and powers of the rank-and-file membership.”
As they pushed alternative candidates on Wednesday, the rebels made it clear that the issue went far beyond Mr. McCarthy, who is the preferred speaker of most House Republicans.
“It’s not about the personalities in this contest,” said Representative Scott Perry, Republican of Pennsylvania, who said his party needed a “new vision.”
“How are you going to fix it if you come to this town and step right in line and keep doing the same things that everyone has done before you?” asked Mr. Perry, a backer of Representative Byron Donalds, Republican of Florida.
Representative Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican and Freedom Caucus member who is supporting Mr. McCarthy, acknowledged frustration among a broad swath of members and said that a main element of the Republican feud was about “transparency.”
“One thing that people in the Freedom Caucus are asking for is more time to read bills before they are voted on,” said Mr. Buck, who said such guarantees could benefit both Mr. McCarthy’s supporters and his opponents.
The demands for additional changes come as several lawmakers in the new Republican majority have said they will withhold crucial votes to raise the limit on the nation’s ability to borrow unless Democrats in the Senate and the White House agree to steep spending cuts.
The changes would make it vastly more difficult for a divided government to enact any basic legislation, let alone continue federal spending at its current levels and avoid broader economic catastrophe. That prospect worries Democrats who view the stalemate over the speaker slot as a preview of the new majority’s inability to pass spending bills or raise the debt limit.
“This concerns me that we might end up in some deals that might not pass and then possible shutdowns,” said Representative Henry Cuellar, Democrat of Texas and a member of the Appropriations Committee.
While the far-right Republicans are in position to help shape the House rules, their legislative ideas will run up against the Democratic majority in the Senate as well as President Biden, meaning many of the legislative initiatives will be more symbolic than substantive.
Incoming majorities of both parties in the past have promised more participation for rank-and-file lawmakers, more opportunity to offer amendments and more time to study legislation. When Mr. McCarthy proposed a rules package to dictate how the House would operate, he included measures that would require 72 hours’ notice before any votes on a bill and guardrails intended to rein in spending.
But leaders of both parties have found that opening up the process slows the legislative work considerably, if not halts it altogether, and the new rules are then jettisoned in the interest of greater efficiency and fewer politically charged votes.
But the paralyzing speakership fight shows that the hard-right lawmakers do not intend to relent until they get ironclad guarantees that any new rules will remain in place and that they will have new influence over the business of the House with an eye toward restraining the government.
“We’re sick of promises that never come to fruition,” Mr. Perry said. “We’re sick of that.”