Speaker John Boehner’s resignation could kick off a new round of skirmishing between conservatives and moderate Republicans, regardless of what happens in the race to replace him atop the House GOP conference.
The outlines of the fight were apparent immediately after Boehner announced he would step down. “I’m on the House floor, I go over and talk to a [conservative] Freedom Caucus member and say, ‘what are you thinking?’ [The member replies,] ’You know, the core problem with the speaker is that he punished too many people,’” one House Republican recalls. “I walk less than 15 feet, over less than 15 seconds, and go stand with a group of three [moderate] Tuesday Group members and ask the same question. . . . And they said, ‘there wasn’t enough punishment.’”
That intra-conference divide could intensify as the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) that precipitated Boehner’s exit tries to make the most of the leverage it has in the new round of leadership elections. The insurgent group is working on a list of demands to give Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in exchange for the final votes he needs to succeed Boehner. The list is in flux, in part because the HFC’s members feel the need to achieve something that would satisfy their constituents.
The lawmakers are interested in a rule change that would ban acts of retribution against conservatives who challenge leadership — perhaps by preventing the speaker from trying to strip conservatives of their committee posts. But that effort could stall, in part because even some members of HFC understand that leadership needs a means of keeping order. “You’ve got to maintain some latitude to make it all work,” one HFC member concedes.
#share#Another more provocative, if unlikely, option has been floated by multiple lawmakers: asking McCarthy to work to replace current committee chairmen such as Michigan representative Fred Upton, who leads the Energy and Commerce panel, with more conservative lawmakers. “They’re not too crazy about Fred Upton,” one Republican representative familiar with the HFC’s potential demands says.
HFC lawmakers particularly disliked Upton’s handling of the 21st Century Cures Act. The bipartisan legislation passed out of committee unanimously, but Upton lost the support of budget hawks by changing the legislation to rely on mandatory spending in order to obtain more Democratic support. A second HFC member charges that Upton’s defense of the change — he claimed that the insurgent caucus might have blocked the bill if he hadn’t found a way to gain more Democratic votes — was flatly untrue. Still, Upton is already term-limited out of his chairmanship, and HFC is very unlikely to get anyone ousted mid-session. “I don’t think [McCarthy] would jerk someone’s chairmanship away unless there is cause, fair cause,” says the same House Republican who relates the HFC’s reputed dislike for Upton.
#related#It might be possible to get broader support for changing the committee chairmen at the beginning of the next Congress, due to the ideology (and ambition) of the junior House Republicans who took office in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. “We’ve all got to realize that these are all primarily Boehner chairs and that’s why it’s important for us. With a new speaker, this is time for a fresh-faced Republican conference,” says a third HFC member. “There’s a lot of new members that are looking to move up into subcommittee chairs and eventually chairmanships.”
That debate might not ultimately take place in the context of the upcoming speaker’s election, either because HFC chooses to push for other promises in exchange for supporting McCarthy or puts its weight behind a candidate for majority leader. “It’s tough to say we took out Boehner and we got a rule change [for backing] McCarthy,” the third HFC member says.
And as McCarthy negotiates with HFC, he’ll have to worry about striking a balance between the moderates and the back-benchers that doesn’t foment more discord down the line. As the lawmaker who discussed Boehner’s retribution tactics with conservatives and moderates on the House floor put it: “They could both be right. [Boehner] might have picked the middle.”
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.