The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House GOP tries to embark on a united front as expected rifts loom

The undercurrent of tension serves as an early preview of the differing opinions that House Republicans will face in a possible majority

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) listens as former president Donald Trump speaks in Washington in July. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

During a weekly conference meeting Tuesday morning, members of the notoriously rebellious House Freedom Caucus put Republican leadership on notice.

Feeling like leadership wasn’t paying attention to their input, one member of the conservative group introduced an amendment that made a simple ask: Let’s vote on significant rule changes that strengthen the power of rank-and-file members before we vote on leadership elections.

The proposal raised eyebrows. Several Republicans in the closed-door meeting took it as an early warning shot by the Freedom Caucus that if their demands are not met, and Republicans take the majority in the House, they will withhold their votes to support Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for speaker and others running for top leadership spots. Members of the conservative group had recently decided to stop publicly endorsing or commenting on leadership races to keep the tension high, multiple Republican lawmakers said.

McCarthy, attempting to move off the subject, ended the gathering Tuesday by stressing that the conference should stop acting as if it had already won control of the chamber and instead focus on uniting ahead of Election Day, according to four people present who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

The undercurrent of tension serves as an early preview of the difficulty that House Republicans, who haven’t had the reins of power since 2019, will face in the majority with various factions making demands of leadership on legislative priorities. Recent polls suggest that GOP gains in the House could be smaller than previously expected — a worry for lawmakers who believe a new class of Trump allies could embolden the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus and shore up their influence over leadership in a way that halted the passage of legislation in the John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) speakerships.

“Based on everything that I hear interacting with the American people, leadership of a Republican majority better be prepared to make change,” said Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), a Freedom Caucus member.

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The conference entered this week readying to promote their “Commitment to America” pledge, a one-page memo of principles unveiled to members Thursday that GOP leaders hope will persuade voters to hand them control of the House, as well serve as the guiding touchstone that holds the group together when legislative divisions inevitably emerge.

But even that document is purposely short on policy specifics, according to aides familiar with the drafting process — an acknowledgment that the conference remains divided on which legislative proposals would be the best prescription for a number of political issues.

The debate over how to proceed on legislating abortion, for example, is evident in the document. Some Republicans would be content with a 15-week federal ban, while many others support legislation banning abortions at six weeks gestation or before, according to multiple aides. The Commitment to America pledge doesn’t get into specifics on the issue, one that polling shows is motivating voters across the country. Rather, it promises that the party will “protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers.”

So far, the broad strokes have united all factions of the conference, as several members emerged from a Thursday meeting applauding the effort.

“Nothing’s perfect. There’s always going to be something that you wish was in or not in. I don’t think that’s the point,” Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said. “It’s hard to get everybody’s wishes in a document that fits on a card, so that’s actually pretty remarkable.”

As the party unites around the document in the foreground, members on the right flank are in the background still sharpening their asks. The Freedom Caucus is expected to make starker demands of leadership in exchange for their votes, in particular a request to bring back a rule that gives members the ability to recall the speaker at any time — a direct threat should McCarthy take the gavel.

Whether any of their demands are met will depend entirely on the ideological makeup of the conference and the margin they hold in a potential majority, which won’t be known until November.

“If it’s a big margin then [leaders] don’t need 35 votes. If it’s a small margin, they do need our 35 votes,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who is a member of the Freedom Caucus.

Regardless of the Election Day outcome, leaders — and those running for leadership positions — face the daunting task of corralling the differing factions including moderates who want to focus on governing and allies of Donald Trump who balk at bipartisan deals.

“I think one of the things that this Commitment to America does is it actually puts us on paper, on record as saying these are the minimum things we’re going to accomplish,” Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Tex.) said. “We’re going to promise the American public all these different things, and we need to have leaders who can ultimately get that over the finish line.”

Campaign promises and overpromising tread a very fine line. Current and former GOP aides warned the conference about promising things it can’t deliver, especially in what will be a divided government. They hark back to when House Republicans vowed — and failed — to repeal Obamacare.

“Being clear on what you can do and what can’t you do and setting those expectations is important,” said John Murray, a former top adviser to former congressman and GOP leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

A uniting document

Knowing that uniting the conference around a set of shared policies would be difficult, McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) intentionally created working groups at the start of the 117th Congress that could hash out philosophical differences and find common ground for legislation. That process resulted in assigning all Republican lawmakers to one of seven issue-specific task forces that focused on topics including border security, Big Tech and the economy.

That decision-making process put members in charge of determining the party’s priorities should it take back the majority. Leaders intended to get early buy-in from all members to establish a guidebook of commonalities across four general areas — strengthening the economy, security, freedom and government accountability.

“It’s about you. It’s not about us," McCarthy said at the event rollout in Monongahela, Pa. on Friday. “And we want to roll it out to you, the entire country to know exactly what we will do if you would trust us and give us the ability to take a new direction for this country."

But the proposals are thin on actual policy prescriptions to the problems that House Republicans want to solve. Aides say that’s on purpose.

Several aides familiar with the drafting process said the memo is based on policies but does not list them because of divisions that already exist over which version of legislation — the most conservative or more centrist version — may be the best solution.

“The difficult thing with being too specific is that you wade into some of the nuances of policy, and [it] has to be broad so that everybody can kind of find their niche,” said Rep. Stephanie I. Bice (R-Okla.), who helped craft the plan.

The GOP promises to voters are vague in nature: “fight inflation and lower the cost of living,” “curb wasteful government spending” and “increase take-home pay, create good paying jobs,” among other measures. They also touch on issues that Republicans have already focused on, such as being tough on China, securing the border and proposing a Parents’ Bill of Rights. McCarthy also pledged on Friday that the first bill a GOP majority puts on the floor would repeal funding meant to hire 87,000 Internal Revenue Service officers.

“Their new platform, which isn’t, frankly, new as long as slogans are short on details, which is usually the case. That’s because the true details of Republicans’ agenda are too frightening for most American voters," Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said at a union event in Pittsburgh on Friday, previewing expected Democrat attacks.

Leadership allies argue that leaving out policy detail is only fair for soon-to-be-elected lawmakers who have had no time to influence the legislative process.

But all the grand plans will be for naught if Republicans overreach, costing them the House, or if slim GOP victory margins make governing more difficult. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has tightly controlled a narrow Democratic majority with as few as a four-seat margin this Congress, frustrating her friends and foes with the top-down legislating.

The fiercest conservatives are pledging this year to resist any attempts by leadership to fund the government, send fiscal assistance to Ukraine or back any bipartisan legislation. The battlegrounds are already shaping up for next year.

“The Farm Bill reauthorization, the possible debt ceiling and always government funding are the hardest votes for the leadership to get 218 Republicans. So we’ll just have to see what those things look like when we’re in the majority,” Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) said.

But the more moderate members, who often come from swing districts, are well aware of the challenges ahead and worry that internal battles and a stalemated Congress could backfire on Republicans.

“A lot of folks just assume everybody’s in an R+20 district,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said. “If you want to be a majority, you got to be able to win those swing districts.”

That hesitancy has made some members side with candidates who already have experience in leadership over those who are positioning themselves as the vanguard of Trumpism.

A seat at the table

The impending battle over the focus and strategy of a Republican majority is expected to escalate in leadership races in the coming weeks, with McCarthy at the center. The identities of his lieutenants will set the stage for the direction of how the party will govern in the next Congress.

McCarthy is the crux of the leadership team with the more conservative Scalise as his No. 2. The race for majority whip, who is responsible for corralling members on key votes, is a critical but thankless job, and the conservative members are planning to exert their influence on that role.

“There’s a mismatch between leadership and the rank-and-file Republican conference … and I just think that it would be really important to have a conservative voice who will assert himself or herself,” said Bishop, who is backing Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) for the whip position.

The Freedom Caucus is posturing to ensure they have more representation in the conference, multiple Republican aides and lawmakers said. That means positions on key committees, including the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Steering Committee, where the Freedom Caucus does not feel their stances are sufficiently represented.

The Steering Committee is especially enticing. It has an extraordinary amount of influence because members hand out coveted committee assignments. The party leaders, in this case McCarthy, choose who sits on the committee.

“That’s exactly what we’ll ask for — a seat at the table, and I think we will have [one],” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), who is also a Freedom Caucus member.

Two governing GOP members, who privately opined about their colleagues, said they will reevaluate their current committee assignments before committing to them next term if ultraconservative members are assigned to their panels.

Some members in the Freedom Caucus said they won’t discuss the leadership races publicly until after the election. But Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) said his criteria for who gets his vote includes how the leadership candidates address end-of-year spending bills, including a short-term government funding bill that must be passed by the end of next week, and their support for the Freedom Caucus’s rules change proposal.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) decided against running for the whip position and announced last week that she will instead run again for conference chair, a role that gives her a national platform by strategizing and relaying the party’s message. The whip is “a really difficult job,” a senior GOP aide said, adding that as conference chair, “You’re just lobbing bombs at the administration.”

The race for the whip began in earnest this month. Each of the three candidates — Banks, Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) and Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) — represent different ideological factions within the party.

Banks is the most conservative of the three. He has enhanced his populist views and saddled up to the former president as well as with McCarthy. He is close friends with Donald Trump Jr., who speaks highly of him, according to a person close to Trump Jr. He is also chair of the Republican Study Committee, the largest group of House conservatives — many of whom have endorsed him.

“The whip basically has to give the leaders an idea of what the pulse of where the conference is,” Duncan said. “I think Jim can do that.”

Emmer has run the National Republican Campaign Committee for two campaign cycles and is expected to be instrumental in winning back the majority this year. His allies say he understands the needs of both swing districts and more conservative ones and can balance the needs of the entire conference. He has the support of a vast array of members, including Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) and former head of the Freedom Caucus Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.). Stefanik strongly hinted that she’ll back him, too. “I have been very proud to work with Tom Emmer to win that majority,” she said.

“We believe in meritocracy, and it’s very hard to deny someone a promotion when his hard work has led us to the majority,” Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) said.

Ferguson is Scalise’s top lieutenant as chief deputy whip and is playing up his Southern roots, a region where Republicans are well-represented, except in leadership.

“At the end of the day, we need somebody — when we win the majority — we need somebody that can ultimately govern,” Gonzales said.

But Banks has been criticized as being opportunistic and overtly ambitious. While he has the most conservative voting record, he has not won unified support of the Freedom Caucus. Some members are still miffed that Banks sought campaign funds and support from the group during his 2016 campaign but didn’t join the conservative group, according to four people familiar with the situation.

Emmer is the most moderate of the three candidates running and the only one of two who voted to certify the 2020 presidential election, along with Ferguson. His detractors are concerned that he’ll be unwilling to advance some of the more fringe legislative proposals.

While Ferguson has the support of Scalise, he is not McCarthy’s preferred candidate. McCarthy blocked Ferguson, a chief deputy whip, from attending leadership meetings in early 2021. While four people familiar with the decision confirmed the snub, none could say why. Another person familiar with the decision said McCarthy has actually encouraged broadening these meetings to include more members and that Ferguson has stopped by. Even so, it puts Ferguson at a disadvantage when gaining the support of leaders.

“We understand that an effective whip is going to be required to talk to the relatively broad spectrum of personalities within the conference,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) said.

Pleasing the factions will be a difficult job for anyone in leadership unless the possible majority margin is large enough to deter members from advancing their will — a tension often seen this term among Democrats who have only a four-vote margin. But that is why Freedom Caucus Reps. Perry, Good, Michael Cloud (R-Tex.) and Chip Roy (R-Tex.) all stood up in Tuesday’s meeting to make clear that they will try to influence leadership now and in the next Congress.

“God bless the person who will do it and a special blessing to the person who has to whip me,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said.

correction

A previous version of this article misstated the year Republicans last controlled the House and misstated that Emmer was the only candidate in the race for whip who voted to certify the 2020 election. It has been updated. It also has been updated to clarify Freedom Caucus expectations about committee representation.

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