The conservative House Freedom Caucus is turning up the heat on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and the rest of his leadership team, setting the stage for what could be a difficult relationship if Republicans take the House majority this fall.
Past GOP Speakers have struggled to move legislation because of conservatives in their conference, and the management of the Freedom Caucus is widely seen as a huge test for McCarthy if he becomes the Speaker of the House.
“[Former GOP Speaker] Paul Ryan [Wis.] used to say it’s like keeping frogs in a wheelbarrow,” said one House Republican who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s going to be a great challenge to keep everybody together.”
The confrontational conservative group has already started to poke at leadership with a battle over House rules that would chip away at leadership’s power, releasing this summer a set of rules change requests for the House Republican Conference and the House as a whole that would give more power to individual members.
The rule changes include restoring the ability of any member to make a “motion to vacate the Chair.”
This essentially serves as a motion to oust the Speaker. It was last used by the Freedom Caucus against former GOP Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) in 2015, when it helped push Boehner into retirement.
In House GOP conference meetings, Freedom Caucus members have pressed House leaders to hold a vote on the conference rules before a vote on House GOP leadership to prevent leaders from writing the rules that they want.
That request was tabled, prompting frustration from Freedom Caucus members.
“I thought that was sort of an untoward response to the proposals,” said Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.). Leadership argued that members should keep attention on winning the majority on Nov. 8, he said.
The vote order request has been “essentially dismissed without being defended by leadership,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.). “I don’t understand, you know, why we would be asked to vote on rules that we have not seen a week after the election. That’s what happened two years ago, and I fear it will happen again.”
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said that he had a meeting recently with GOP leaders to discuss the rules change requests. He characterized the meeting as productive, but lacking commitments.
“I’m disappointed that we’re still not still not really moving the chains, here. We’re not moving the ball down the field,” Perry said.
The Freedom Caucus could have a lot of leverage on McCarthy if the GOP wins the House majority and the Californian seeks the Speakership, particularly if the size of the majority is slim.
He will first need majority support from an internal conference vote. Then there will later be a vote on the House floor, where Democrats will vote against McCarthy for Speaker. The Californian will need Republicans to stick together to ensure any defections do not jeopardize the Speakership vote.
Current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faced a tight situation last year, winning with the smallest majority in decades. She converted five Democrats who did not vote for her in 2019 to vote for her in 2021, and narrowly won the gavel despite some defections. That foreshadowed Democratic divisions later in the year that forced her to delay a major infrastructure bill vote.
Boehner faced a wave of opposition from the right flank in 2015, when 25 GOP members voted against him for Speaker, setting the tone for the tumultuous final months before his resignation later that year.
There are around three dozen members in the Freedom Caucus now, with some members retiring and other GOP candidates hoping to join the confrontational group.
Asked if he thinks the group would have more power with a smaller majority, Perry said: “It seems to be an arithmetic equation to me.”
But McCarthy has no challenger to the House Speakership at this point, partly because he has given the caucus a seat at the table.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) once challenged McCarthy to be leader of the conference, but the high-profile Freedom Caucus member now has the top GOP spot on the House Judiciary Committee. Jordan supports McCarthy for Speaker.
The House GOP has whipped against bills that the Freedom Caucus has asked Republicans to oppose, such as bipartisan infrastructure legislation signed into law last year. More recently, the House GOP asked members to oppose a continuing resolution to fund the government following a Freedom Caucus stand.
In a sign of McCarthy’s efforts to woo conservatives in his conference, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) was invited to his rollout of a “Commitment to America” policy platform in June.
She expressed appreciation for the GOP leader giving a green light to an August push by some Freedom Caucus members to have GOP members vote by proxy for Democrats’ climate, health care and tax reform bill in hopes of spurring a later legal challenge on the legitimacy of the law.
“I think people read him wrong,” Greene said of McCarthy. “I think that was a good sign to show everyone that he’s really engaged with the entire conference, and that included the Freedom Caucus.”
But she has declined to commit to supporting him for Speaker.
One GOP member said McCarthy has done “pretty well, surprisingly,” in managing the Freedom Caucus.
“He’s given him his ear. He’s hearing their concerns,” the Republican said. “It wasn’t a bad move to bring Jim Jordan in close and give Marjorie a voice.”
But that is subject to change if the conference goes from being united against Democratic proposals in a minority to having differing views on policy focus and tactics in a majority.
“Not sure I would want that job,” quipped Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas).
It is not just the Speakership vote McCarthy would have to carefully manage with the right flank. Measures to raise the debt ceiling and on immigration have been sticking points in the past, and Republicans in the current Congress have split on foreign aid and funding to Ukraine.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is predicting the Democrats will keep control of the House in November. But if McCarthy were to take the gavel, Hoyer warned of legislative gridlock as GOP leaders face pressure from conservatives to eschew any compromise with the Biden administration and shift the focus instead to investigations of the president and his family.
He noted that the last two GOP Speakers — Boehner and Ryan — were both nudged into early retirements by conservatives in their own ranks.
“Ryan and Boehner got out. Why’d they get out? Because the people who were controlling the party were the Freedom Caucus,” Hoyer said.
But members of the House Freedom Caucus are not quite ready to forecast challenges the group might make.
“I’ve been here long enough not to be the optimist I’m being, but I’m hoping that we’re all on the same page going forward,” said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a former chairman of the group.
Mike Lillis contributed.