KERRVILLE, Texas—Rep. Chip Roy is preparing for battle.
“The ﬁght’s just begun—the speaker’s ﬁght was a preview,” he said at a fundraiser this past week for the Kerr County Republicans. Of his time in Washington, he said: “I’m not there to get second place. I’m there to win.”
The GOP lawmaker was a leader of the conservative holdouts opposing Kevin McCarthy’s speakership bid, extracting concessions at the negotiating table in exchange for allowing the California Republican to win the top job. Now, fresh oﬀ that January ﬁght, Mr. Roy is telling backers to get ready for another one, as Mr. McCarthy tries to unite the party again, this time in a high-stakes battle with Democrats over the nation’s borrowing limit.
“If you think it was hot then, the debt-ceiling ﬁght is going to get a lot hotter,” he told business owners at the Kerrville Area Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.
Mr. Roy is a pivotal ﬁgure in the talks. He wants to see a debt-ceiling deal that is paired with immediate spending cuts that will start in the coming ﬁscal year, including setting the top-line number for appropriations spending to levels from two years earlier. He is pushing for Republicans to pass a plan this month to kick-start negotiations with the White House.
Republicans have a narrow 222-213 majority in the House, so Mr. McCarthy must get almost all members on board assuming no Democratic support. A spokesman for Mr. McCarthy didn’t respond to a request for comment about when the party would hold a vote on legislation.
The debt-ceiling deadline is approaching. The U.S. could become unable to pay all of its bills as soon as this summer. The Treasury Department announced it ran up against the roughly $31.4 trillion debt limit in January. It is now deploying special accounting maneuvers to keep paying the government’s obligations to bondholders, Social Security recipients and others.
House Republicans will return on Monday from a two-week Easter recess to try to turn their talking points into legislation that pairs spending cuts with raising the debt ceiling. Mr. McCarthy plans a speech in New York on the debt ceiling, and House Republicans were set to have a members-only call on Sunday, according to a lawmaker invited to attend. Mr. McCarthy sketched a rough outline of the Republican position in a letter to Mr. Biden last month.
Mr. Roy, 50 years old, is a lead advocate for the House Freedom Caucus—a group of several dozen far-right members who have generally opposed increasing the debt ceiling—in negotiations with broader Republican leadership and other blocs.
“Chip has been in probably 90% of the meetings that we’ve had, because of his ability to go down a secondary and tertiary layer on substance,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R., La.), whom Mr. McCarthy deputized to wrangle the factions of the Republican Conference.
Democrats want a ”clean” debt-ceiling increase with no conditions attached—with Mr. Biden saying he is open to a separate debate over ﬁscal policy once Republicans produce a budget. Republicans said a formal budget wouldn’t be released until later this year, potentially after the ﬁght over the debt ceiling is done, and have said talks should start now.
Mr. Biden, whose own budget includes tax increases that are nonstarters with Republicans, sat down with Mr. McCarthy in February, and the two haven’t met since.
A White House spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Many Republicans agree on setting the top-line spending limits to ﬁscal year 2022 levels—a step back from current ﬁscal 2023 levels—and then allowing for small annual increases. Many also back reinstating work requirements for people to qualify for government programs like food stamps, canceling Mr. Biden’s student-loan forgiveness program and putting unspent Covid-19 aid money back into the nation’s coﬀers. Cuts to Social Security and Medicare are oﬀ the table.
They also want to add a bill, dubbed the Reins Act, to require congressional approval of any federal rule or regulation that the Oﬃce of Management and Budget determines to have an economic impact of $100 million or more. Lawmakers are also discussing energy-related provisions to increase oil-and-gas production.
Democrats won’t agree to much or any of this. But Mr. Roy and other House Republicans said they hope to muscle the bill through the GOP-controlled House, as a signal that the party is standing together and to provide an opening bid in bipartisan talks.
“You’re going to lose right-ﬂank support if you don’t have upfront, ﬁrst-year cuts,” Mr. Roy said in an interview over beer and pretzels. “The debt ceiling is not going to be clean, and it’s not going to be one simple thing attached to it.”
Moderate and defense-focused Republicans have pushed back on cutting defense spending. Mr. Roy countered by saying nondefense spending could be cut back further to allow for more defense spending. Such cuts could shake support of lawmakers in competitive districts.
If talks fail, or if Mr. McCarthy is forced to strike a deal with Democrats, Mr. McCarthy could see his speaker job jeopardized. As part of the agreement he cut with holdouts in January, Mr. McCarthy agreed to make it much easier for rank-and-ﬁle members to hold a new speaker vote. Mr. Roy credits Mr. McCarthy with so far keeping the promises he made.
A bipartisan group, the Problem Solvers Caucus, has been quietly meeting to attempt to ﬁnd a path through which Republicans and Democrats could agree on raising the debt ceiling, according to several people familiar with the matter. That would likely cut out lawmakers like Mr. Roy and the House Freedom Caucus.
“If these sons-of-bitches want to try to end-run us, game on,” Mr. Roy said.
“All sides need to sit down at the table and get this done. If we don’t, and go oﬀ the cliﬀ, Americans, our economy and our standing in the world will suﬀer,” said New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the Democratic co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus.
Mr. Roy entered Congress in 2019, and his district runs from Austin to San Antonio. He is a cancer survivor, which his colleague Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.), who chairs the House Freedom Caucus, said makes the lawmaker a tougher negotiator.
“The normal threats of ‘you’re going to lose your committee assignment,’ ‘we’re not going to run some bill’… they are impervious to someone like Chip Roy,” he said.
He has sometimes teamed up with Democrats, co-sponsoring a bill banning lawmakers from owning individual stocks. He has clashed with former President Donald Trump, and for 2024 he has endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president.
The former chief of staﬀ to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is well-versed in House and Senate procedure. When Democrats were in the majority in the House, Mr. Roy used procedural motions to delay votes, and at times forced lawmakers to rush back to the Capitol or stay late into the night, something members of both parties grumbled about.
“Tactically, Chip and I have a lot of disagreements,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R., S.D.), who chairs the Main Street Caucus, which bills itself as a group of pragmatic Republicans. “There are times when he will make a tactical decision that I think is the wrong one.”
Still, Mr. Johnson maintained that he and Mr. Roy agree more on how to cut spending than they disagree. The Main Street Caucus sent a letter to Mr. McCarthy on Thursday backing a rollback of nondefense discretionary spending to ﬁscal 2022 levels, work requirements and a bipartisan commission on Social Security and Medicare, among other steps.
“A lot of members can be unrealistic about what’s gettable in a negotiation. Chip doesn’t live in a fantasy land,” Mr. Johnson said.