The Freedom Caucus is prepared to exact a price from Kevin McCarthy if he wants to be the next speaker of the House — three years after foiling his first bid for the job.
A POLITICO survey of about 20 of the conservative group’s three dozen members found varying degrees of openness to the California Republican known as a deal-making pragmatist. But nearly all the hard-liners said he’ll have to make concessions to win their support. Without it, they could block his path to the speakership.
“We’re not just going to rearrange the deck chairs around this place and keep doing the same stuff with different people,” said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), a caucus board member. McCarthy, currently the majority leader, “hasn’t earned my vote."
The demands of the conservatives differ widely. Some Freedom Caucus members — including even one of the most pro-McCarthy conservatives, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) — want to see one of their own installed in the ranks of Republican leadership. Others, like the group's outspoken leaders Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) or Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), want allies named to plum committees or considered for chairmanships.
A huge chunk of the group wants a speaker who will push Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) harder to take up conservative House-passed bills. And another slice, such as GOP Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.) and David Schweikert (Ariz.), are seeking legislative process changes, such as more amendments and debate, or specific conservative policy fixes.
“What I think you’ll hear from everybody [in the Freedom Caucus] at this point in time is that we’re not committing to anybody,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), one of the few Freedom Caucus members who has a seat on a powerful committee, House Energy and Commerce. “I want to have that conversation with Kevin if he is going to run and see what we can do to make sure that conservatives have a voice and that we manage the House a little bit more productively.”
The group has time to come up with a concrete set of demands. Speaker Paul Ryan is still on the job and he's insisting he’ll lead the House GOP through Election Day.
Yet many Republicans think the horse-trading between McCarthy and the Freedom Caucus needs to happen sooner than later.
Though a handful of Freedom Caucus members say a longer courtship could help them extract even more from the next GOP leader, if Republicans lose the House in November, the group is almost certain to lose influence. Only a few dozen Republicans are needed to withhold the 218 votes required to become speaker; becoming minority leader requires just a simple majority of the Republican conference, a much easier feat for McCarthy.
That’s why some Republicans are considering a deal with the frontrunner to replace Ryan.
“I supported John Boehner and I supported Paul Ryan under the right circumstances; I could vote for Kevin McCarthy on the House floor,” said GOP Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, later adding, “It’s all a matter of comparisons.”
For McCarthy, the upcoming race is a test of the way he's wielded his influence in the Ryan era.
Since the HFC dashed his hopes of being speaker in 2015, McCarthy has assiduously tried to cultivate relationships with some in the group by working with them on legislation or raising money for their reelections. He’s donated to or held events for at least a half-dozen, including: GOP Reps. Rod Blum (Iowa), Morgan Griffith (Va.), Alex Mooney (W.V.), Andy Harris (Md.), Gary Palmer (Al.) and Schweikert. And he’s worked with a handful of others to get their ideas votes on the floor.
Last fall, after Hurricane Harvey, McCarthy flew to GOP Rep. Randy Weber’s Texas district to spend time with him and his constituents. Today, the Texas Freedom Caucus member is warming to the idea of a Speaker McCarthy. Asked if he would back McCarthy for speaker, Weber paused for a full minute, took a deep breath and pondered aloud, “Do I want this in the news?”
“He has a good grasp of all the issues. He’s smart. He’s intelligent. He’s a good fundraiser,” said Weber. “Aren’t those all qualifications for a good speaker?”
That’s not the only relationship that’s paid dividends. About a half-dozen group members suggested they could back McCarthy — or seemed persuadable — should a race happen now.
“He’s had an event for me in Texas; he’s always been responsive when I call him; he has a great relationship with my 12-year-old son, Jack; and he’s good on the issues,” said Barton, who wants the Freedom Caucus to haul in McCarthy to discuss how he’d run the conference. “I personally don’t have a problem with him.”
But for every conservative open to McCarthy, there’s one or more who’s skeptical. Asked if he would back McCarthy, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) complained about leadership promising to put one of his bills on the floor in return for his Obamacare repeal vote last spring. He’s still waiting a year later.
Others groused about the historic lack of floor amendments considered and lack of legislative victories under unified Republican control of Washington.
“We need some changes around here — and that is going to determine who we get behind,” said GOP Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia.
Some were more diplomatic than others. An often colorful and quotable Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) would only say “he’s a very able guy,” when asked twice about what he thought of McCarthy leading the conference.
At least two group members suggested that McCarthy was not going to win their votes.
“He’s not qualified,” said Amash, a more libertarian member and one of the group’s most outspoken leadership critics. “You need someone who is actually going to change the process which has [broken] under the recent Republican leadership.”
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) was no more generous, blaming McCarthy as much as Ryan for what he views as a top-down effort to scuttle legislative debate and jam through policy changes in massive spending bills.
"Kevin would have a hard time selling me," Biggs said.
Rep. Steve Pearce disagreed, and bristled at the suggestion of a Freedom Caucus-McCarthy deal, saying he would not need any concessions. The New Mexico Republican also argued that most decisions were likely Ryan’s, and so blaming McCarthy for problems might be unfair.
“He’s been second in command,” Pearce said, notably not ruling McCarthy out. “You can never tell what the second would do because they are sometimes directed by the [speaker]. So I don’t know exactly where he stands.”
That diverging view — whether McCarthy can be blamed for the problems the group had with Ryan — is only part of the greater divide in the group over McCarthy, which featured prominently at a closed-door Freedom Caucus meeting on Monday night. Schweikert, who sits on the prized Ways and Means Committee and has a good relationship with current House leaders, tried to persuade the group that they should be focused on eliciting policy demands rather than their personal relationships with McCarthy or whoever is running.
“I’m trying to convince the Freedom Caucus members: ‘Let’s take the approach that this isn’t about personalities; it’s about policy. Let them earn it,’” Schweikert said. “Who is going to actually sort of have these intellectually robust ideas? This isn’t a personality contest, it’s a contest of ideas.”
That cuts both ways for McCarthy. GOP Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama, for example, said he has a great relationship with McCarthy. Indeed, Palmer spoke fondly for 10 minutes about negotiating with McCarthy on Medicaid block granting and work requirements during the Obamacare repeal stand-off between leadership and the far right last year. He also talked about working with McCarthy to get to ‘yes’ on a 2015 budget fight that pitted fiscal conservatives against defense hawks.
“We found a way to make it work,” Palmer said proudly. “If I trust that we can have an honest conversation and you’re going to give me a fair hearing on my views, you’re always going to have my confidence.”
But Palmer, too, wouldn’t say if he thought McCarthy should be speaker, noting that “everybody’s got a different story.”
“Kevin and I are very good friends, but my decisions will be based on what I think is best for the conference, not just personal relationships. And I expect Kevin to do the same thing,” Palmer said. “That’s the sign of a real leader: the ability to put their own personal interest on hold for the good of everybody else.”
One challenge McCarthy might encounter when it comes to the Freedom Caucus: groupthink. Conservatives know their power is in numbers and often look to their Freedom Caucus leaders, Meadows and Jordan, to negotiate for them, as they did during the Obamacare repeal debate.
Leadership has learned over the years it’s difficult to peel members off from the group. And Meadows and Jordan drive a harder bargain than some other members.
Perhaps that’s why so many in the caucus — including GOP Reps. Dave Brat and Tom Garrett of Virginia to Warren Davidson of Ohio and Ted Yoho of Florida — refused to weigh in.
“We’re a long way off,” said Harris.
“I’m not going to engage in speculation and what ifs,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).
Biggs predicted that there will be efforts to divide the Freedom Caucus and prevent them from voting as a bloc.
Asked if those efforts could work this time, Biggs shrugged: "I don't know."