Kevin McCarthy, U.S. representative from California and the leader of the House Republican Conference, has been one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington for more than a decade. But McCarthy spent the first week of the 118th Congress in a severely diminished state.
Early on Saturday morning, McCarthy was elected speaker of the House after a grueling, historic, and humiliating 15 rounds of voting. For five days, a group of Republican hard-liners blocked his bid for House speaker. The Californian made a series of extraordinary concessions to win support from his ultraconservative colleagues. Matt Gaetz, a hard-right Republican from Florida and one of McCarthy's toughest holdouts, said he finally gave in because "I ran out of things I could even imagine to ask for."
On Monday night, House Republicans voted 220-213 to enshrine some of the concessions into the chamber's rules. The measure, which dictates how the 118th Congress operates, includes an addendum that enumerates other concessions that McCarthy agreed to. And House lawmakers told the New York Times they were worried that the speaker had agreed to even more handshake agreements that weren't reflected in the written package.
The compromises McCarthy made in exchange for the speaker's gavel could reshape the way the lower chamber operates. Among other concessions, McCarthy agreed to let any member call for a vote to unseat the speaker at any time; to give members of the Freedom Caucus, the most conservative bloc within the House, seats on powerful committees; and to allow lawmakers to propose more amendments on the chamber floor. Some of McCarthy's compromises may have ramifications, as well, for climate policy.
"Kevin McCarthy has ceded his speakership and control of the House Republican agenda to the most extreme fringe faction of his party," Josh Freed, the senior vice president for climate and energy at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Third Way, told Grist. "There's a real chance that Republicans are going to try to gut really important government investment on everything, including clean energy and climate."
Freed is referring to a plank of the deal McCarthy struck with his hard-right colleagues to put a cap on discretionary spending — money approved by Congress and the president every year through the annual appropriations process. Discretionary spending includes all federal expenditures that aren't funded by their own law. About 30 percent of the government's overall spending is discretionary, including funding for many climate and environmental programs. New limits on that funding could affect clean energy research overseen by the Department of Energy, limit the Interior Department's conservation efforts, and restrict disaster recovery distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, among other projects.
Other elements of the deal, such as putting members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus on the House Rules Committee, which plays a pivotal role in influencing how legislation moves through the House, could have an indirect impact on climate policy by affecting the legislation lawmakers even get to vote on.
Prior to McCarthy's capitulations to the most extreme wing of his party, there was a slight possibility that Democrats and Republicans could have found common ground on some key measures. McCarthy has his own climate agenda that he's been honing for a handful of years — a response, in part, to the popularity of progressive Democrats' Green New Deal. That plan, like other Republican climate policy proposals to date, fails to address the root causes of global warming or to slash emissions in line with scientists' recommendations. Last summer, McCarthy unveiled a climate strategy that called for increasing domestic production of fossil fuels and exports of natural gas and speeding up the permitting process for big infrastructure projects.
Streamlining permitting is something members of both parties have said they've wanted to accomplish for years. In the last Congress, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin tried to move a bipartisan permitting reform bill forward but wasn't able to garner enough support. Such a bill would have helped realize the full potential of the Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark climate spending bill passed by Democrats last year, by making it easier to build transmission lines to carry renewable power to customers.
Permitting reform might have been something that was addressed again this Congress, but Freed said McCarthy's compromises make that prospect even more remote by ceding middle ground to the hard right. "It puts the possibility of legislating on issues like permitting reform, where there otherwise could have been a bipartisan solution that was conceivable, at extreme risk," he said.
When it comes to passing climate policy, Representative Sean Casten, a Democrat from Illinois who has a background in clean energy development and just secured his third term in the House (and used to write for this publication), said it's a foregone conclusion that a Republican House majority equals a lack of action on climate change. What McCarthy promised ultraconservatives doesn't affect that equation much, in his view. Many Republican members of the House who are in powerful positions or sit on important committees represent fossil fuel producing regions and take hundreds of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel companies.
McCarthy himself hails from Bakersfield, California, a city so steeped in oil that its high-school football team, which McCarthy played on as a teenager, is called "the Drillers." He received more money from oil and gas interests during the 2022 campaign than any other member of the House — more than $500,000.
"They are, understandably, hostile to anything that would reduce demand for fossil fuels or reduce the price of fossil fuels," Casten said. "Progress on climate isn't going to happen with Republicans in the majority."