Republicans worry new Speaker could face old problems
By Scott Wong – 10/01/15 06:00 AM EDT
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has the inside track to succeed John Boehner as Speaker, but could his days be numbered as well?
More than half a dozen House Republicans this week told The Hill there are serious concerns that, unless the intraparty warfare subsides, the new Speaker could become the next victim of GOP “fratricide.”
“The group can’t be led right now and we’ve got to change that,” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), a former member of leadership who’s been urging colleagues to take stock of the GOP conference after Boehner’s stunning decision to call it quits at the end of October.
Freshman Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a retired fighter pilot, said Republicans are at a crossroads: They can either work as a team or continue engaging in “circular firing squads.”
“The fundamental dynamics of governing around here hasn’t changed, so the next Speaker will likely have to confront the very same challenges that Speaker Boehner faced,” added Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), co-chairman of the Tuesday Group, a bloc of centrist House Republicans.
“I’ve always said, the same folks that tried to fry John Boehner will try to fry the next guy,” he added. “I think Kevin McCarthy understands that, and other people running for leadership understand that, too.”
Boehner (R-Ohio) shocked the political world on Friday by announcing that he was resigning from Congress on Oct. 30, midway through his third two-year term as Speaker. His decision followed repeated clashes with conservative rebels in his own conference who complained his tactics weren’t aggressive enough.
This summer, one of those hard-liners, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), authored a resolution to oust Boehner, replete with a list of grievances against the nearly 25-year veteran of Washington.
Instead of forcing his allies to take an unpopular vote to save him, Boehner chose to fall on his sword and leave.
But Boehner’s decision does little to make it easier for his successor. That same Meadows resolution will be hanging over the head of McCarthy if he wins the Speaker’s gavel, especially as he faces a host of politically thorny issues such as raising the debt ceiling, funding highways and avoiding a government shutdown in December.
“If the conference cannot find a way to find unity and work together and to agree to execute a grand strategy, even though we may have a difference of opinions and tactics, I expect that there will be continuing fratricide,” lamented Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), chairman of the 170-member conservative Republican Study Committee.
“It’s reprehensible that Republicans are fighting Republicans. We need to fight for the good of the American people,” he said.
A McCarthy spokesman had no comment for this story, but the California Republican has been trying to address some of the unrest in his conference. He’s in frequent touch with members, calling, texting and meeting with them throughout the week, even those in the House Freedom Caucus who have caused trouble for leadership.
And McCarthy did a flurry of TV interviews this week, introducing himself to viewers as someone who is more concerned with everyday Americans than “power and institutions.”
House Republicans huddled for two hours Tuesday night in what some described as a post-Boehner “therapy session.” But the vigorous debate, including several emotional speeches, didn’t yield many answers, and some complained it was a waste of time.
Some of the talk centered on the Freedom Caucus, the group with 40-plus members that demonstrated this year it has the power to block procedural votes and prevent GOP bills from coming to the floor.
Roskam, who first called for the family meeting, said the next Speaker’s team needs to be more rhetorically aggressive to show the base that Republicans in Washington are fighting for them. And moderate and conservative Republicans need to get on the same page when it comes to defining success in a divided government: Is it repealing laws such as ObamaCare, or is it laying the groundwork for a 2016 presidential victory?
“Part of our inherent disconnect is we have multiple definitions of success because we don’t have a shared definition,” Roskam said in an interview in his Capitol office.
Still, other GOP lawmakers and aides are pressing the next Speaker to take a tougher stance against the Freedom Caucus, led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
“The House Freedom Caucus is a lot like that kid that you see in the grocery store aisle throwing a temper tantrum over whether they can get a box of
Cocoa Puffs. The child did not learn that behavior that day. They learned over time that type of behavior works,” a senior GOP aide said in an email. The next leaders “must break the cycle of rewarding bad behavior.”
GOP handwringing over McCarthy’s fate comes amid dissatisfaction among some Republicans about the current crop of leadership candidates. A last-ditch effort to draft Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) into the race for Speaker or majority leader underscored Republican worries about simply promoting the existing team of McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.).
McCarthy heightened some party fears that he’s not ready for prime time after he implied to Fox News that the special GOP-led House Benghazi committee had succeeded by harming the poll numbers of Hillary Clinton.
“The feeling is if we just do a bump-up for everybody — Patrick McHenry becomes whip, Scalise becomes leader and McCarthy becomes Speaker — our voters will become apoplectic. And so that’s what’s driving a lot of this,” said one Freedom Caucus leader, who is pushing Gowdy for Speaker.
“Trey Gowdy is very popular among our base. And I think we all recognize someone from the Freedom Caucus is not going to get elected.”
McSally, who represents a battleground congressional district in Tucson, Ariz., agreed there’s a need to shake things up.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” she said. “If all we do is rearrange deck chairs, then we’re going to have the same dynamic.”
Asked how many days the next Speaker will have before he’s cannibalized by his own party, Dent replied: “It’s a good question.”