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‘You’re wrong’: McCarthy answers his critics as he faces blowback from GOP hardliners

<i>J. Scott Applewhite/AP</i><br/>Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy talks to reporters about the debt limit at the Capitol in Washington on May 28.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy talks to reporters about the debt limit at the Capitol in Washington on May 28.

By Manu Raju, Jeremy Herb and Melanie Zanona, CNN

(CNN) — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in February made a bold prediction about the GOP and the debt ceiling, asserting: “We don’t believe they have a plan that can pass with Republican votes in the House.”

He later insisted that the White House would not negotiate with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on a debt ceiling increase and that ultimately Congress would lift the borrowing limit without any conditions at all.

“Clean, clean, clean,” he told CNN in April, referencing the push for a clean debt ceiling resolution.

But McCarthy ultimately passed a bill in April on GOP votes alone. He then later forced President Joe Biden to negotiate a debt limit suspension with spending cuts. And Wednesday night, the House passed the McCarthy-Biden deal by a 314-177 vote, even winning the backing of 149 House Republicans, more than half of his conference, and the support of 165 Democrats. The Senate passed the bill late Thursday night, and it now goes to Biden’s desk for his signature.

“You’re wrong,” an ebullient McCarthy said when asked about critics underestimating him.

After one of the longest speaker’s races in history, winning the gavel after an ugly 15-ballot fight, McCarthy has managed to navigate his ideologically divided conference and bring to an end the debt limit standoff – even to the surprise of some of his sharpest critics.

“I have been thinking about this day since before my vote for speaker because I knew the debt ceiling was coming,” McCarthy said at a news conference following the vote Wednesday night. “I wanted to make history.”

When asked if he underestimated the speaker, Schumer didn’t answer directly.

“No. 1, we avoided default – our number one goal, which we’ve been talking about from day one,” Schumer said. “No. 2, it is a far, far cry from where the Republicans started out.”

Democrats say if the speaker surprised them in the fiscal fight, it’s because they didn’t think he would hold the specter of the first-ever US default over the White House until Biden agreed to negotiate on his terms.

“I think the Republican House caucus is willing to go to default,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat. “When dealing with folks like that, it’s really hard to negotiate at all.”

But it didn’t come without a cost.

After the debt limit deal passed, Republican Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado told CNN that House conservatives will be having discussions about ousting McCarthy “in the next week or two,” although he didn’t commit to following through with that threat.

A fired-up Buck, who opposed the debt limit deal, told reporters that he has received calls from constituents about removing McCarthy from the speakership. “My constituents are furious and you know what’s so interesting about the calls in the district? They are not only ‘vote against this bill,’ but they are ‘take McCarthy out.’ That’s what the calls are coming in,” he said.

The same Republicans who held out their votes for McCarthy’s speakership bid in January hated the deal he struck, arguing that it failed to curtail spending or provide conservatives with key policy wins. Several have publicly talked about moving to oust him for the agreement.

Rep. Chip Roy, the Texas Republican who has vocally slammed the deal, promised a “reckoning” earlier this week after the agreement was reached. And Rep. Dan Bishop, the North Carolina Republican who publicly vowed to target the speaker and potentially oust him from his job, said of his confidence in McCarthy: “None. Zero. What basis is there for confidence?”

Still, there haven’t been signs yet that the hardline conservatives will actually move to oust the speaker.

During a House Freedom Caucus conference call Tuesday night, when the motion to vacate was briefly brought up, Chairman Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican, dismissed the idea as “premature” and the conversation quickly moved on, according to a source on the call.

The source said that there have been private, “independent” discussions about the motion to vacate among some of McCarthy’s fiercest critics, but not among the Freedom Caucus as a whole, where there is far less appetite to go that route.

After facing an all-consuming debt limit battle for the last several months, McCarthy is ready for the next act of his young speakership – and he’s taking steps that can win over the far-right furious at him over his debt ceiling deal with the White House.

To win some of his critics back, he’s promising his members that he wants to set up a bipartisan commission to rein in sky-high deficits while also privately vowing to hold the line in the government funding fights to come.

Rep. Ralph Norman, a South Carolina Republican who said McCarthy has lost “some trust” by cutting the debt deal, told CNN that the speaker had promised that leadership would be “actively” involved in the appropriations process, saying that’s where “the next big debate” will be.

While the debt limit and spending has bitterly divided the GOP conference, McCarthy is now free to turn toward more unifying measures – and to go on the attack against the Biden administration instead of cutting a deal with the president. It’s one reason why McCarthy was OK with agreeing to the White House’s demand to suspend the debt limit until January 2025, ensuring the divisive issue won’t be litigated before the 2024 elections.

Asked what’s next now that the debt crisis is behind them, McCarthy told reporters: “We’ve got a number of things.”

“We’ve got to do appropriations,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of oversight work to do. I don’t know if you’ve followed … FBI Director Wray, not following through on our subpoena. Now he says he would let us look at the document,” McCarthy told reporters.

The focus internally is already shifting.

On Wednesday, House Oversight Chairman James Comer said his committee would begin contempt proceedings as early as next week against Wray, in a move that would serve up red meat to the right flank of the GOP conference.

Comer has demanded that the FBI turn over an internal law enforcement document related to an unverified allegation against Biden, and he said Wednesday that the FBI’s proposed accommodation to allow Comer to view the document would not be sufficient to stop contempt proceedings.

Another target for far-right Republicans is Alejandro Mayorkas, the Homeland Security secretary whom conservatives want to impeach over problems at the border.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right Georgia Republican who backed McCarthy’s speakership in January, told reporters that she is willing to swallow the debt ceiling deal but said would like to see a “dessert” to go along with it – and specifically named the idea of impeaching Mayorkas or Wray.

This story has been updated to reflect the bill’s passage in the Senate.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Morgan Rimmer, Lauren Fox and Alayna Treene contributed to this report.

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