clock menu more-arrow no yes

The House Republican civil war, explained

New leadership elections won't stop the brutal fight for power within the GOP.

Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

Republicans in the House of Representatives are locked in a long, grinding civil war. The rebels will never win power, but the establishment can't fully annihilate them either.

The rebels have organized themselves into the House Freedom Caucus, a group that successfully pressured Speaker John Boehner to give up his gavel. But the group doesn't have the numbers to elevate one of its own to a top position when Republicans choose new leaders on October 8.

It's all but certain that Boehner will be succeeded by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who currently occupies the No. 2 Republican job, House majority leader. The real fight will be over who succeeds McCarthy, and there are two candidates. One is Steve Scalise, who currently occupies the No. 3 job, majority whip. The other is Tom Price of Georgia, a former member of the Republican leadership.

None of these three men — McCarthy, Scalise, or Price — is a member of the Freedom Caucus or even viewed as much of an improvement by them. Indeed, it looks like the rebels who helped oust Boehner will be shut out of senior leadership positions in the Republican Conference. All they'll get — besides Boehner's scalp — are soft promises of appeasement from GOP leaders who are anxious to move up the ladder.

And that's probably for the best, because the Freedom Caucus doesn't really have a serious agenda. It has no discernible ideology or policy agenda, and its members wouldn't know what to do with power even if they won it. What they do have is the numbers to stop bills cold on the House floor. When the new leaders try to govern, the rebels will go right back to whipping up opposition to bills that keep the government functioning and America's credit in good standing, and the GOP civil war will rage on — relatively unabated — for the foreseeable future.

The real race is for the No. 2 job, but it doesn't really matter who wins

McCarthy faces only nominal opposition from Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL), who amassed just 12 votes for speaker against Boehner in January. So the real competition is for majority leader, the office that controls which bills come to the House floor.

Scalise, a low-key Louisiana conservative, won the majority whip's job last year when Rep. Eric Cantor resigned from the leadership after losing a primary to Freedom Caucus member Dave Brat. Having been chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Scalise was seen as the right's guy in leadership. He has an edge over Price because he has a proven record of winning votes in a high-profile leadership election, and he currently controls the party's official vote-counting operation. As a Republican leader, he tends to the care and feeding — sometimes literally — of the rank-and-file lawmakers, and he raises money for their reelection bids.

ScaliseMcCarthy

US House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (L) and House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) eave after a House Republican Conference meeting September 29, 2015, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

But there are two knocks against him: Republicans leaders, including Scalise, haven't been very good at getting party members to vote for key bills in recent years, and he spoke to a white supremacist group over a decade ago. (The latter might not hurt him much in a secret-ballot leadership election.)

Price is an even lower-key Georgia conservative who runs the House Budget Committee and was once the Republican Policy Committee chair. His glasses, mustache, goody-goody demeanor, and nasal delivery have earned him comparisons to Ned Flanders, the killjoy neighbor on The Simpsons.

Tom Price

Committee chair Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) speaks during a US House Budget Committee markup on the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for FY 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

He's well-regarded among the House's fiscal hawks because he hardly ever starts or ends a conversation without mentioning his commitment to slashing the federal budget. And he's secured endorsements from a pair of influential House Republicans: Ways and Means Committee Chair Paul Ryan and House Financial Services Committee Chair Jeb Hensarling. He'll struggle to prove to conservatives that he would be a powerful voice for them at the leadership table.

The rebels who toppled Boehner could get locked out of leadership positions

The Freedom Caucus, which doesn't list its members publicly, consists of three to four dozen of the 247 Republicans in the House — or less than 20 percent of the GOP. It's big enough to deny party leaders the 218 Republican votes they need to move bills without Democratic help, but too small, and too divisive, to actually push one of its leaders into the Republican hierarchy.

It was formed earlier this year by nine Republicans who have spent their entire careers bucking the party leadership on bills large and small. In a statement announcing the creation of the group, they said their goal is "to advance an agenda of limited, constitutional government in Congress." Emphasis on limited and an interpretation of the Constitution so literal that it might make Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cast some side-eye at them.

In July, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported that after six months, only two features defined the Freedom Caucus: "its commitment to secrecy and to being a thorn in the side of House Speaker John A. Boehner." One lawmaker said they operate under "fight club" rules — the first and second of which are "you do not talk about fight club."

With McCarthy well-positioned to move up and little difference between Scalise and Price, either ideologically or stylistically, it looks like the Freedom Caucus will remain on the outside, left to cast stones at GOP leaders.

Some Republicans are still trying to recruit another candidate into the race, but he or she would start out way behind Scalise and Price, who already have begun locking up commitments. Whoever wins, though, will face the same paralyzing options that beset Boehner: Govern and worry about getting ousted, or abdicate responsibility by giving into the nihilism of the angry Freedom Caucus fringe.

The Freedom Caucus doesn't have a candidate for the No. 3 job, either

The favorite in what is currently a three-way race for whip is Rep. Patrick McHenry, who is currently the chief deputy whip — a position to which he was appointed by Scalise. The 39-year-old North Carolina Republican has already served a decade in the House and two years longer than McCarthy.

He arrived in Washington with the precociousness of the College Republican leader he once was, but has developed a more serious reputation over time. Like all the other members of the Republican leadership, he's generically conservative on fiscal and social issues but also interested in proving Republicans can govern.

His rivals, Rep. Dennis Ross of Florida, and Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, are in their third and second House terms, respectively. If either won the post, it would be an upset. But three-way races are unpredictable. If no one wins a majority on the first ballot, the third-place finisher is knocked out, and his or her supporters can go to either of the remaining candidates on the next ballot.

Realizing that they're not likely to get one of their own — or even someone they really like — into the leadership, the Freedom Caucus members are understandably now focused on showing that they have the juice to make candidates for top jobs swear oaths to empower them. One of their complaints against Boehner is that he had used his power over House rules to prevent them from fully participating in the legislative process. Their bills didn't reach the floor, they didn't get to offer amendments, etc. Of course, Boehner was just trying to stop them from using the process to kill the Republican agenda — and in the cases of must-pass budget bills and debt ceiling increases, the basic operations of the federal government.

The one thing the hardliners seem to have achieved is a nod to those frustrations from top candidates for top jobs.

"We need a new leadership team that is committed to conservative principles, but more than that we must recognize the need for a culture change within our conference," McHenry wrote in a letter to colleagues that echoed the theme of a similar missive from McCarthy. "A new culture based on trust, consistency, communication, and collaboration."

This civil war isn't close to ending

So the main thing the Freedom Caucus and its allies stand to gain from having pressured Boehner to exit isn't a seat at the leadership table, a change in the party's ideology, or even a particular policy goal. Instead, they've won soft promises of greater inclusion — perhaps a little more opportunity to influence the party's agenda.

The problem is that the Freedom Caucus types don't want to govern. That isn't a hypothesis or a prediction — it's the reality that Boehner lived with for five years.

When he first became speaker, he committed himself to having an open legislative process and did. But the rebels used all of the available levers to grind the gears of the House to a stop — by offering hundreds of unpalatable amendments to bills, by refusing to vote for legislation that spent any money, and by insisting the House take up bills destined to fail on the floor or die in the Senate. So to keep the country running, Boehner used his power over House rules to stifle them. Many of Boehner's allies believe his mistake was being too slow — not too quick — to push back against the burn-the-House-down crowd.

Now his successors, in all likelihood the very same people who sat around his leadership table and pursued the same strategies, are hinting that they'll ease up on the tools Boehner used to frustrate the Freedom Caucus set. These new leaders should know better. The appeasement will only fuel their adversaries. It's like they're promising to re-arm the rebel army. And they're doing it at a time when even the Freedom Caucus members are both acknowledging the limits of their own influence and hinting that they will keep fighting the new leaders of the old guard.

"What I'm hearing from the people I represent is a move up of McCarthy and Scalise into the number one and number two positions is not what they are looking for," Rep. Mark Meadows, the North Carolina Republican who filed a motion to depose Boehner this summer, toldthe Washington Examiner. "The general feeling is if the same people move up, then that is not changing the way D.C. does business."

He's right about that.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.