Politics & Policy

Freedom Caucus Strategy Could Backfire on the GOP

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The sudden and dramatic departure of Kevin McCarthy from the House speaker’s race leaves Republicans nervous and fretting. “It reminds me of 1998, when Newt Gingrich resigned as speaker, his heir apparent Bob Livingston had to pull out,” one old-time member told me. “We ended up with Dennis Hastert as speaker because he was a ‘calming influence.’ Worked out at first but much less so over time.”

Representative Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican, says a lot of members are now talking about an “interim speaker,” a member broadly supported by most party factions precisely because the arrangement wouldn’t be permanent. Huizenga tweeted today that “someone like @CandiceMiller [of Michigan] or @repjohnkline [of Minnesota] would do a great job as interim Speaker while we sort out a few internal issues.” Both of the members he mentions have already announced their retirement, so they would be leaving office in January 2017.

The major problem the House Republicans face is a bitter dispute over tactics: An Establishment wing wants to incrementally move legislation that doesn’t alienate too many voters, and to wait for a GOP president in 2017. Then there is an activist wing that says that voters showed they wanted a clear break from the past in 2014, and that the country can’t afford to wait to confront its problems. An “interim speaker” would only paper over that disagreement, in the hope that conditions for agreement between the two sides would be better with a GOP president in office.

But there is no real precedent for an “interim speaker,” so expect the next round of the leadership contest to be fought between the factions. Representatives Dan Webster of Florida and Jason Chaffetz of Utah are already running, but they are likely to be supplanted by better-known members. For the conservatives, think Texas representative Jeb Hensarling, chair of the House Financial Services Committee, or Tom Price, a physician and former chair of the House Republican Study Committee. Establishment types might cluster around Tom Cole of Oklahoma or Peter Roskam of Illinois, who has significant support from both camps.

#share#Whoever the next speaker is going be, a fundamental question is going to need a resolution: Are procedural questions about how the House governs itself and who exercises what powers going to be decided by the 247-member House Republican conference, or by the whole House? Representative Tom McClintock of California, a strong conservative but also an ally of Kevin McCarthy, resigned as a member of the 40-member House Freedom Caucus this summer over precisely that question.

It was the Freedom Caucus’s last-minute decision to withhold all its votes from McCarthy and vote instead for Representative Webster that accelerated McCarthy’s decision to withdraw from the race.

House conservatives may let loose consequences that could empower Democrats and hurt Republican chances in 2016.

But as much as McClintock agrees with the policy goals of the Freedom Caucus, he doesn’t think its methods are helpful. He points out that if just 30 House Republicans don’t like a decision of the leadership, they could join with the 188 Democrats at any time and force a different outcome — or a different set of leaders. “If any group of members shifts management of this body to the full House floor, you have fundamentally changed the nature of this institution,” he told me. “Conservatives think they can use this as leverage to put pressure on their leaders, but so too will the 30 most moderate Republicans figure that out and use it to pressure the leadership, and then Nancy Pelosi will have power she shouldn’t have.” A discharge petition to force a vote on the revival of the Export-Import Bank out of committee and onto the House floor is already being circulated by Chamber of Commerce Republicans in the House. “McCarthy opposed Ex-Im, Boehner agreed to let it die, but now it could be revived by an unholy alliance of Republicans and Democrats,” he says.

#related#Conservatives are right to want action and to be frustrated by the rigid structure of Congress that makes it highly difficult to accomplish anything. But if — out of their frustration — they upend the power of the majority party in the House to dictate the agenda, they may let loose consequences that could empower Democrats and hurt Republican chances in 2016. A House majority is powerful, but only if it sticks together and remains a majority.

It’s time for Republicans to lay aside some of their pettiest differences and look at the big picture.

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