Over the past two weeks, a small group of House conservatives punched way above its weight.
First, they managed the ouster of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) by forcing his hand in the debate over whether to shut down the government. A week later, they helped eliminate Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) from the party nominating contest to replace Boehner, after deciding to back a little-known candidate who vowed to make some long-coveted changes to House rules.
It’s an impressive record for the House Freedom Caucus, which was until recently a relatively loose-knit group of 30 to 40 hard-liners whose main goal was to stop compromising with House Democrats. But in recent months, enraged by a series of undercover videos about Planned Parenthood, they evolved into a more cohesive — and more powerful — movement. Now, they very might well hold the key to who becomes the new House leader.
In the race for speaker, the caucus is demanding a complete overhaul of the rules and procedures that govern the House of Representatives. They say they want a speaker who will listen to all sides. But in reality, they are looking for a leader that will hand them more control of the legislative agenda.
“Just treat every individual fairly so we can all be legislators instead of having to kiss rings every time we want to get something done,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), one of the group’s unofficial leaders. “We asked them to stop making the Speaker the one who makes all of the decisions.”
Led by soft-spoken Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the Freedom Caucus isn’t interested in the old way of doing business in the House, where seniority reigns and a small group of veteran members control what bills come to the floor.
These conservatives — many of whom came to Congress on the 2010 tea party wave that ironically handed Boehner the speaker’s gavel — don’t want to slowly climb the leadership ranks and defer to their senior colleagues. They want committees to hear out every piece of legislation. They want every member to have a chance to amend every piece of legislation. And perhaps most of all, they want respect.
“That egalitarian approach is very important,” said Rep. Mark Sanford. “At the end of the day if one comes from a conservative origin, the ultimate litmus test is freedom and liberty.”
But the approach they call egalitarian is similar to what other Republicans deem total chaos. Just one week ago, the group was willing to shut down the government because it wouldn’t support any spending bill unless it stripped federal funding for Planned Parenthood. They didn’t care that President Obama said he would veto such language, and they didn’t care that leadership feared a shutdown would kill the party’s credibility in the 2016 elections.
McCarthy walked away from the caucus’s demands on Thursday after it became clear that he wasn’t going to be able to unite Republicans. When asked later by National Review’s Rich Lowry if the party had become ungovernable, his answer was bleak.
“I don’t know,” McCarthy said. “Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom.”
Since Boehner’s resignation announcement, the group developed a list of principles they expected leadership to adhere to, said Labrador.
Conservatives said they wanted seats on top committees, like the tax-writing Ways and Means panel, and they wanted the chance to draft the party’s agenda through seats on the Republican Steering Committee. They also sought to offer any amendments they see fit on any bill, regardless of whether or not it could draw a veto or ruin the chance of legislation passing the Senate.
Labrador said the group presented the principles on Tuesday to the three speaker candidates: McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), and Rep. Daniel Webster, a relatively unknown Republican back-bencher from Florida.
“We thought we were gaining some headway,” Labrador said.
Webster was the only person who was willing to agree. And by Wednesday, he had won the group’s endorsement. The caucus said on Thursday afternoon that its endorsement still stands, but with developments rapidly changing, it could consider other candidates. And it was never clear who they would back on the House floor, where the official speaker slot is awarded and where a Republican can’t lose more than 29 votes to ascend.
Freedom Caucus members who attended the Tuesday meeting later insisted they didn’t make any specific demands. Caucus members and other conservatives merely acted as moderators, giving each candidate 30 minutes to speak, said Tea Party Caucus chairman Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.).
The group couldn’t support McCarthy because he didn’t offer a vision beyond “Boehner 2.0”, Huelskamp said.
“There were no demands on Kevin,” Huelskamp said. “There’s a frustration that if we ever decided to support him, how would you explain to people back home he was any different [than Boehner]?”
Webster is a former speaker of the Florida House and a relative unknown in Washington. He took office in 2011 and serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Webster told reporters on Thursday that his only promise was to end Boehner’s top-down leadership style.
“The whole idea is getting everyone to participate instead of having a top-down approach,” Webster said. “What I’m against is the way we operate right now, which is a power-based system, not principle.”
Webster’s lack of notoriety may have been a selling point for many hard-liners, arguing the only way to ensure the next leader actually empowers the rank-and-file is to choose someone who isn’t already on top.
“Power doesn’t like to give up its power,” said Rep. John Fleming, (R-La.). “That’s why many of us have gotten behind Mr. Webster.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.