Tom Cole: McCarthy’s ‘cuts’ deal with conservatives now void

With Kevin McCarthy out as speaker, House Rules Chair Tom Cole says Republicans are free to step back from the deep appropriations cuts dictated by McCarthy’s backroom deal with the far right last June.

“This agreement was faulty from the beginning. It’s changed over time, and now in a sense, it doesn’t exist at all because McCarthy isn’t the speaker anymore,” Cole said in an interview. “So we’re not really bound by this agreement now. That will be an interesting thing the new speaker will have to hash out.”

Cole’s comments are striking because of his stature in the House, seen again last week when as Rules chair, he managed the historic debate in opposition to those wanting to oust McCarthy. The Oklahoma Republican is also vice chair of the funding panel, the second-highest-ranking appropriations post. The fact that he should speak out so directly now could embolden GOP centrists to do the same in the party fight now over who will be the next speaker.

When McCarthy struck the spending deal in June, he was under assault from conservatives angered by the less severe spending caps he had accepted as part of a bipartisan bill negotiated last spring with the White House to avert default.

The sudden about-face stunned many in both parties, and unlike the spending caps in the debt ceiling bill, the new spending targets were never really tested by a full vote in the House. Some details of the deal remain murky even to Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, and the panel has struggled since to comply and still find support for its bills on the floor.

Just four of the 12 have passed thus far, and these are the easiest. When totaled together, government spending for these accounts would go up — not down — from current appropriations for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

The tougher work covering non-defense programs lies ahead, and Cole points to the collapse last month of the annual agriculture appropriations bill.

The measure is typically popular but went down 237-191 on Sept. 28, when 27 Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the funding plan.

“Look at the members who brought down the farm bill and they are some of our very best members,” said Cole, who had a front-row seat as a member of the Appropriations. “They felt like they had been misled, were very disappointed and they voted accordingly. … This had to do with the confusion around this very poorly written agreement that has never been public.”

In the race to elect a new speaker, the dynamics are very different from McCarthy’s own election last January. Back then, GOP centrists were largely forgotten, and all the focus was on McCarthy’s tortured efforts to win over the last holdouts on the right. The dynamics now are different, in that the leading candidates are more to the right than McCarthy and will need centrists to prevail.

Whoever becomes the next speaker, they will need Cole’s help in coping with the next spending crisis when government funding is slated to expire out Nov. 17.

As the House struggles, the Senate Appropriations Committee has taken a different path, writing its 2024 bills in accordance with the caps set in the debt ceiling agreement. (Senate appropriators have even poured nearly $14 billion in emergency spending onto their own funding bills, in a move Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has derided as a “gimmick” to go above the debt limit deal.)

As a result, the two chambers are tens of billions of dollars apart. Moreover, House rules make it harder for Democrats or GOP moderates to close this gap by adding back money during floor debate. When in power since 2011, the House GOP has ruled out of order any spending amendment that adds to the net cost of an appropriations bill as reported to the floor.

Unless waived, that rule makes it very difficult to alter the current crop of spending bills as written under the McCarthy deal. A more direct route would be for the House Appropriations to reassert control and try to alter its bills to move closer to the caps in the debt ceiling deal.

The House Rules Committee chair says Republicans are free to step back from the deep appropriations cuts dictated by McCarthy’s backroom deal with the far right last June.  

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