It’s the three-page document everyone in Washington is talking about — except it may not even exist.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his GOP allies insist that no back-room promises were made to land his gavel after 15 frenetic ballots, that no plum committee spots, precise spending cuts, or debt limit strategy were guaranteed in a quid pro quo. Agreements and goals were reached with conservatives who initially withheld their votes from the speaker, GOP leaders say, but nothing was formalized in writing.
McCarthy made his denial of any backroom agreement plain on Thursday, telling reporters: “There’s not a side deal to anything.” But that doesn’t change the reality outlined earlier by Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), who leads the Republican Governance Group: “There’s all these people talking about a document that doesn’t exist.”
But the debate surrounding the document has exposed a trust problem days into McCarthy’s speakership. There’s plenty of paper flying around summarizing handshake deals between the speaker and his members, and some GOP lawmakers have muddled their leaders’ message by talking candidly about what they secured in exchange for their speaker votes.
That boasting has heightened worries within the conference about working together in good faith for the next two years. Nearly a full week after McCarthy’s battle played out in extraordinarily public fashion, lawmakers in his conference are still striving to learn details of what’s been promised and to whom.
“You’ve got members who don’t believe other members because they read something. It’s about trust. You either trust people or you don’t,” Joyce said.
The situation has grown more complicated this week, as GOP leadership outlined the concessions that it prefers to interpret as agreements and as some House Republicans open up about what they got from last week’s frenetic talks. One McCarthy holdout, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), bluntly told Fox News when asked “what did you get” that he would join the influential GOP Steering Committee “as Speaker McCarthy’s designee.”
McCarthy also informed members that the House would take its first-ever vote this Congress on a contentious national sales tax bill that Georgia Republicans — including McCarthy dissenter Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) — have pushed for decades.
“That was part of the negotiation. The 20 conservatives who were holding out, one of the things that they wanted was to see it come to the floor for a vote,” Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) said.
Clyde, though, wouldn’t confirm any link between the tax bill and his speaker vote: “It’s a promise I made to my district. I have no comment on anything else.”
Another McCarthy promise was to diversify the membership on coveted House panels, which in practice means adding more Freedom Caucus members and other conservatives. That has begun to happen: Four speaker-race holdouts — Clyde, Donalds, Rep. Michael Cloud (R-Texas) and Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.) — were awarded spots on prime committees on Wednesday.
Cloud and Clyde will serve on the powerful Appropriations panel, while Donalds and Ogles will serve on Financial Services. Several more committees will set their rosters next week.
Still, Clyde stressed: “There’s no secret rules addendum. There’s just an agreement.”
The rumored existence of a binding secret document, however, prompted multiple GOP lawmakers to approach their leaders about it, texting each other in search of the missing paper. Some, like Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) took issue with the behind-the-scenes talks, according to an email to constituents that was obtained by POLITICO.
“Certain members of Congress were also trying to jump to the front of the line to be placed on committees they didn’t earn, and dictate what bills should be considered on the floor without input from any of the 200 Republican members of Congress … Some sort of deal was hashed out for the majority of the 20 to vote for McCarthy as Speaker. But this deal was crafted in private, behind closed doors,” Mace wrote.
Members who asked about a binding document of concessions were told it did not exist. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), one of the right flank’s chief negotiators with McCarthy, said K Street lobbyists had circulated a document last week claiming it listed out the conference’s agreements in full — including some he had never seen before.
“That wasn’t any part of our conversation … Somebody else must be saying that out there,” Roy said of the document he heard was getting passed around K Street.
“There was a handshake agreement that we would carry forward with what we talked about,” he added. “We had general agreement that we need to have a reflection in the Rules Committee, you know, conservative representation.”
Some House Republicans argue that the most divisive of the concessions floating around are “aspirational” — particularly on issues like spending and the debt limit, which would need to get buy-in from the Democratic Senate and White House to go anywhere.
Three Republican lawmakers said GOP leaders did put something in writing: It was a PowerPoint slideshow presented to members at Tuesday’s conference meeting.
“He went through the agreement at conference — he had it all on the PowerPoint,” said one McCarthy ally, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The speaker’s allies have also privately briefed members who raised concerns about potential side deals. Some GOP lawmakers believe the miscommunication about a comprehensive three-page document may have started from notes members took in negotiations that somehow trickled to other hands.
“I asked what was agreed on and I got the full briefing. It wasn’t a document, but they said, ‘This is what we agreed on,’” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said. He added that he was concerned, for instance, with how many conservatives would sit on the House Rules Committee (He was told three, per the agreement).
And after the Rules panel’s chairman, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), said he was fine with it, Bacon said he was, too.
“I haven’t seen the document, but maybe the 20 people put together their own document on what was agreed upon,” Bacon said.
And in a particularly conspicuous detail for some Republicans involved in the process, two of the vocal McCarthy holdouts and chief speakership negotiators — Roy and Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) — did not push for any targeted goodies for themselves, according to McCarthy ally Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.).