WASHINGTON — Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California won his job by bowing to the demands of a group of far-right Republican dissidents to overhaul how the House operates, effectively diluting his own power while increasing theirs.
The protracted floor fight that finally led to his election early on Saturday morning made for a historic and tumultuous start to the 118th Congress, but it was easy to lose sight of why any of it really mattered, beyond the captivating personal and political drama of the week.
Democrats, after all, still control the Senate and the White House. The hard-right group that resisted Mr. McCarthy’s ascent only makes up about 10 percent of the House Republican conference. How big of a problem could the G.O.P. disarray in one chamber of Congress be?
In fact, some of the concessions Mr. McCarthy agreed to would make the practical business of running the House next to impossible. It could be left unable to do basic things like fund the government or finance the federal debt. For the dissidents, that was the point. For the country, it could lead to some grim consequences.
Here is a look at how the House works, and how things could break down.
Who controls the House floor?
The speaker, on behalf of the majority, controls the House floor. The main tool for doing so is the Rules Committee, which sets the terms of legislative debate, including which bills can be considered, for how long and — crucially — what amendments may be offered and by whom.
As part of Mr. McCarthy’s compromise with the dissidents, he agreed to allow the ultraconservative wing of the party approval power over a third of the Republican members of the panel. In effect, that would give the faction the ability to block any legislation it did not like from the floor, by banding together with Democrats on the panel who are all but certain to oppose most Republican bills.
What’s In the $1.7 Trillion Spending Bill
They could also insist on amendments to gut or otherwise stymie legislation they do not like, effectively rigging the process to make it more difficult to pass. That could be particularly dangerous for spending bills and any legislation to raise the federal debt limit.
Mr. McCarthy insisted his caucus would still be able to get things done.
“Don’t judge us on how we start, watch how we finish, and I think by having the disruption now really built the trust with one another and learned how to work together,” he told reporters, adding that he was “1,000 percent” confident that he would hold the speaker job for a two-year term.
What does Congress absolutely have to do?
Republicans, like every new House majority in divided government, have outlined an ambitious legislative agenda that is unlikely to become law while Democrats control the Senate and the White House.
But Congress has a handful of particularly vital tasks to perform: passing a dozen spending bills that keep the government fully funded and raising the statutory borrowing limit that allows the Treasury Department to finance the federal debt. If it cannot pass the funding legislation, the government will shut down. If it cannot increase the debt ceiling, the government could reach its first-ever debt default.
Those tasks were already going to be difficult with a slim Republican majority and an intransigent right-wing faction bent on slashing spending and debt. Mr. McCarthy’s concessions only made them harder — and potentially impossible.
Dissidents won his commitment to open spending bills to unlimited amendments, effectively allowing them unfettered chances to gut or filibuster such legislation with proposed changes. That could make it exceedingly difficult to pass any appropriations measures, which need the approval of both chambers before they can go to the president’s desk.
Republicans also extracted a promise from Mr. McCarthy that any measure to raise the cap on borrowing to finance the federal debt would be accompanied by fiscal reforms, including deep spending cuts, possibly including Social Security and Medicare. The Biden administration and Democrats have said they would never accept such proposals, making a debt showdown highly likely.
Why couldn’t Democrats join with more moderate Republicans to get things done?
There are at least some Republicans who might be inclined to vote for spending bills and a debt ceiling increase, not wanting to see a government shutdown or a debt default, Mr. McCarthy potentially among them. They would have an incentive to work with Democrats on bipartisan deals that could make it through the Senate and to President Biden’s desk.
But in the past couple of decades, Republican speakers have followed an unofficial but hard-and-fast rule — known as the Hastert rule for the former G.O.P. speaker who established it, J. Dennis Hastert — to not put forward any legislation that does not have the support of a majority of the majority.
That means if conservatives are not on board, a bipartisan deal can never see the light of day on the floor.
Still, more pragmatic Republicans — like Representatives Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania — have acknowledged the realities of needing to negotiate spending bills with Democratic senators, and suggested they would work to help ensure compromise bills become law.
Can someone overrule the speaker?
As the presiding officer in the House, the speaker has broad power over the floor, including a large degree of control over what motions can be considered and which members are recognized. But the right-wing faction that resisted Mr. McCarthy’s candidacy only dropped its opposition after he agreed to reinstate a rule that gives him almost no room to maneuver.
The provision, known as a “motion to vacate the chair,” allows a single lawmaker to force a vote that would oust the speaker. Its existence helped earlier generations of the House Freedom Caucus pressure former Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio to leave his office in 2015, under threat of removal. It also hung ominously over the head of Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, his successor as speaker. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California eliminated the procedural threat when she reclaimed the gavel in 2019.
Its resurrection now means that Mr. McCarthy could be removed instantly if he ever angered his hard-right faction.