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After a Hellish Start and a Honeymoon, McCarthy Faces His First Big Test

WASHINGTON — Grinning through 15 excruciating rounds of votes to become speaker of the House in January may have been unpleasant, but Kevin McCarthy was determined to focus on the silver lining.

“See, this is the great part,” Mr. McCarthy told reporters who questioned how — if he could barely get his colleagues to elect him — he would ever be able to govern his slim and unruly House Republican majority. “Because it took this long, now we learned how to govern. So now we’ll be able to get the job done.”

In the months that have followed, Mr. McCarthy has enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts, a period when the question of whether he did, in fact, learn anything about governing through the divisions in his fractious conference went largely untested. That stage has now ended.

Mr. McCarthy is set as early as Wednesday to bring to the floor his proposal to lift the debt ceiling for a year in exchange for spending cuts and policy changes. With a slim majority — with all Democrats present and voting no, he could afford to lose no more than four votes — it is still not clear whether he has the votes to pass a bill that has no chance of enactment.

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said the bill should be called the “Default On America Act” — the abbreviation may allude to its dead-on-arrival status in his chamber — and President Biden has dismissed it as a “MAGA economic agenda” that includes “spending cuts for working- and middle-class folks.”

They and other Democrats have condemned the legislation as recklessly austere and fiscally misguided, and argued that in pushing it, Republicans are precipitating a debt crisis by tying unreasonable conditions to any vote to lift the debt ceiling. The statutory borrowing limit is expected to be reached by this summer, pushing the country into default unless Congress acts to raise it.

Still, for Mr. McCarthy, who has bent over backward to try to placate the anti-spending hard right without alienating more mainstream Republicans whose seats could be at risk if they embrace draconian cuts, even muscling through a doomed bill would count as an accomplishment.

Having taken the position that Republicans will not raise the debt limit without a fiscal overhaul and demanded that Mr. Biden negotiate the terms, the speaker must now show that he can marshal the votes to push through a deal.

That includes soliciting “yes” votes from right-wing members who have never before voted to increase the debt ceiling and take pride in that fact. Failing to do so would represent a monumental setback for Republicans and Mr. McCarthy’s ability to lead them.

“This is the biggest moment because it’s the first real hard thing he’s had to do,” said Brendan Buck, who served as a top adviser to the previous two Republican speakers, Paul D. Ryan and John A. Boehner. “The thing that matters the most with this vote is it’s a demonstration of how strong he is with his own members as he goes into those negotiations.”

Since winning his gavel, Mr. McCarthy has enjoyed a relatively stable stretch in the job he has long coveted.

House Republicans have spent much of the year passing partisan messaging bills on social issues that have no chance of becoming law, but help rally the party’s base and have helped Mr. McCarthy build good will with his members.

He has held off on more contentious matters such as an immigration crackdown that has met resistance among some mainstream Republicans in his ranks, and the presentation of a budget, which G.O.P. leaders abandoned amid disagreements about timing and substance, including how steeply to cut spending.

“It was, by design, a period of putting points on the board and making people feel good to put them in a good mood” before wading into more difficult votes, Mr. Buck said.

Mr. McCarthy has also hailed the creation of a bipartisan China Select Committee as an early success, and counted as a major victory a Republican-led proposal to block a new criminal code for the District of Columbia, which Mr. Biden signed into law after initially opposing it.

“I believe that every member of the conference thinks very highly of Kevin,” said Representative Lance Gooden of Texas. “He’s certainly earned their respect.”

Mr. McCarthy has enjoyed a quiet satisfaction from being underestimated, people close to him have said.

Concerns that he would need to unceremoniously move his belongings out of the speaker’s office before his name was even installed over the door turned out to be unfounded. He got to sit behind the president during the State of the Union address. No one has threatened him with a snap vote to oust him from the speakership — yet.

Even Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, Mr. McCarthy’s nemesis during the speaker’s race, has been more subdued, saying in February that he would give Mr. McCarthy “an A for his work so far.”

But the easy days are over.

Mr. Gaetz said on Monday that he was a “no” vote on the debt ceiling, without tighter work requirements for social programs, a change that some Republicans from politically competitive districts oppose and that Mr. McCarthy has said is not possible.

Mr. Buck said that if Mr. McCarthy were able to pass his debt ceiling bill, even one that is little more than a starting point for a negotiation with Mr. Biden, “it would be extremely impressive, and it would underscore that he’s got a pretty solid base of trust among members — more so than I would have expected at this point.”

Some of Mr. McCarthy’s allies argue his brutal week of public humiliation to become speaker has prepared him for this moment.

“I think deep down he thinks the 15 votes was good,” said former Speaker Newt Gingrich. “It showed he was tough. He could take heat and do it pretty cheerfully. It allowed his members to get a lot of the poison out.”

Mr. Gingrich, the only modern-day former Republican speaker whom Mr. McCarthy seeks to emulate, said he has advised his successor to push ahead with the debt ceiling bill even if he is short a few votes when he walks onto the floor, the better to pressure any wavering colleagues to put their reservations aside and support it.

“The last five votes, you’re standing there begging,” Mr. Gingrich said he has told Mr. McCarthy of his own experience with tough bills. “But there’s pressure to not let the team down.”

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