The House’s endangered species: Republicans who break from the base

How far can House Republicans stray from the party line without losing their seats? It’s a tricky question that’s becoming ever more relevant as they march toward a likely majority next year.

The boundaries of the House GOP tent became clearer this week, when two incumbents known for repudiating Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack faced South Carolina primary voters — and only one, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), survived. In a neighboring district, Rep. Tom Rice became the first political casualty of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach the former president last year.

Trump's second impeachment isn’t the only issue driving a political wedge between a handful of GOP lawmakers and the rest of their conference. Rep. Chris Jacobs (R-N.Y.) scrapped his reelection bid mere days after voicing support for gun safety measures in response to a series of mass shootings, including one just outside his district. Rep. Michael Guest (R-Miss.) was forced into a runoff with an opponent who criticized his vote for a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission.

As Republicans prepare for an anticipated House takeover after the midterms, with polling and history trending their way, it appears that only an isolated few can avoid career-ending consequences for moving toward the political center. And one excommunicated member is warning that Congress’ ability to function has suffered from its fixation on partisan loyalty.

“I think we have a real problem in the party — both parties — right now,” Jacobs said in an interview. Pointing to attempts at even modest compromise on guns and abortion rights, he added: “If you're not stuck to that orthodoxy in either party, you can't do it. And I just don't think that's good for the functioning of our democracy.”

Rice, meanwhile, professed “no regrets” about losing his seat over his Trump impeachment vote.

Those lawmakers are hardly the first to feel blowback for splitting with their party. But with a conference moving rightward, and a House Democratic caucus that promises to become more liberal following the exit of top centrists, the seeming inability to survive votes or stances that tilt left even slightly could hobble the GOP’s ability to pass major legislation from the majority.

Even before this month’s struggles by Rice, Jacobs and Guest, other Republicans have suffered for bucking the party line — in part thanks to Trump. Rice and Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) were forced out in lopsided primary losses, the latter hurt by his support for a bipartisan Senate infrastructure deal. Polls suggest Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is headed for the same fate this summer as she digs into Trump’s conduct as vice chair of the Jan. 6 select committee.

And multiple GOP lawmakers with an outlier in their voting record decided not to run altogether. Jacobs ditched his reelection bid in the Buffalo suburbs just days after he endorsed a ban on military-style weapons. Republican leaders backed that same policy two decades ago, but now the party doesn’t support it.

Jacobs in an interview said his changed view on guns weighed on him, particularly after witnessing the devastation after the mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y. — where he was personally connected to some of those involved — and Uvalde, Texas.

“I wanted to be honest. I could have walked through the primary, which I was going to win and not say anything, and then just said, ‘Oh, by the way, I've changed my position on this,’” Jacobs said, noting that he chose not to seek reelection because his gun views would make the race so divisive.

While Jacobs stood on an island on guns, some Republicans have taken a different tack to surviving votes that will anger the base: banding together. Last year, for instance, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus — equally split between Republicans and Democrats — jointly agreed to back a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan 6 assault.

In the end, 35 Republicans defied House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and voted yes. Among them was Guest, whose more conservative primary rival pilloried him for it.

Another previously unreported example of a GOP alliance to survive an anti-Trump stance occurred in the days before Congress’ vote to certify Joe Biden’s election on Jan. 6, 2021. Kentucky’s GOP delegation planned to vote together against Trump-backed challenges to the results, but things went awry as Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) ultimately decided to support objectors.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) confirmed the arrangement: “We got together and discussed how we're each going to vote on the certification or the acceptance of electors — and, obviously, politically it'd be better, easier, if everybody voted the same way,” he told POLITICO. “I thought we were all going to vote to accept the electors, and then when the day came, Hal Rogers voted not to certify.”

Massie even recalled joking with Rogers about the failed arms-linking during a private dinner earlier this year. “I said how I thought we were going to stick together on this, jokingly. And he said, ‘I did too, and all of you abandoned me.’”

Rogers' office did not immediately return a request for comment on Massie's account of the agreement, which other lawmakers confirmed.

Senior Republicans say it’s not unusual for loyalists to punish a lawmaker for positions that deviate too far from the party line, though some GOP lawmakers privately feel that bar has been lowered recently as their conference has drifted to the right.

Even so, plenty of moderates, particularly from battleground districts, have staked out tough positions yet remain in good graces with the party. In fact, out of the 13 Republicans who backed some part of Democrats’ sweeping gun safety package last week, only five are retiring this year. The same is true on issues like protections for the undocumented immigrant population known as “Dreamers” or even a vote to certify Trump’s loss.

One of those GOP centrists who’s carved out his lane, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), said the disappearing center is a problem for both parties — and a symptom of larger political trends.

“Fewer people are breaking from the party,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview, describing both Republicans and Democrats. “The primaries are getting tougher and tougher. The redrawn district lines don't help because there's even fewer swing districts in the world.”

Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat who has infuriated some in his own party for votes on guns, abortion and oil and gas, agreed.

“What's happening to them is what's happening to us,” Cuellar said.

The ultimate shape of the House Republican tent won’t be clear until after the midterms, and much depends on the number of seats the GOP controls next year. The bigger the hypothetical majority, the more room there could be for a Jacobs- or McKinley-style break from the base. And the relative conservatism of individual districts still matters a great deal.

But there’s still Trump to contend with. And one of the dozens of House Republicans who didn’t suffer primary trouble after crossing the former president has some advice for maintaining independence from him.

“You’ve gotta lean into it and own it, and I try to do that, despite President Trump,” said battleground-district Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who backed the bipartisan Jan. 6 commission.

Trump tried to knock off Bacon this year with a home-state visit where, as the lawmaker put it, he “slammed me pretty good. We still got almost 80 percent of the vote.”

The trick, Bacon said, is picking his battles.

“I don’t want to vote against my values, but if I can find 50 percent of an issue that you agree with and I agree with, why can’t we just do half and get it passed?” Bacon added.

“I’m not into compromising what I believe in. And I know a Democrat isn’t either.”

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‘Nobody cares’: House GOP brushes off McCarthy’s Trump-tape flap

Kevin McCarthy’s caught-on-tape consideration of asking Donald Trump to resign after the Capitol attack roiled the Beltway. Inside his conference, though, House Republicans are largely shrugging it off.

Five days after The New York Times released audio of McCarthy weighing a suggestion that Trump resign — which the House minority leader had previously denied — few Republicans appeared to take issue with it. McCarthy allies cited a bevy of reasons why his disavowal of his recorded comments were of little concern, from the emotional strain lawmakers experienced following last year’s insurrection to the way the newspaper asked for comment.

"Nobody cares about that. ... Nobody but the media and journalists,” said Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“It's a distraction that some New York Times reporters would rather report on things that Americans don't care about, instead of focusing on what's causing the inflation, which is the reckless spending these guys are doing. Those are the issues. The tape's not."

With Trump himself also seeming to revel in the power he exerted through the McCarthy-tape episode, its effect on the California Republican’s future speakership prospects is looking questionable so far. While other factors may yet affect the strength of McCarthy’s hold on the gavel should his party retake the House next year, even some Trump allies who voted to block certification of President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory were undeterred.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who’s also close to McCarthy, said simply that “I'm for Donald Trump being the next president and Kevin McCarthy being the next speaker.”

Still, not all Republicans are ready to let the episode fade. The McCarthy tapes could be easy ammunition for Republicans who want to squeeze McCarthy for concessions or for new conference members who want to make a name for themselves with the party base as ready to challenge leadership.

Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, who chaired the Trump-allied House Freedom Caucus until January, told the conservative One America News Network that McCarthy’s comments in the audio “undermined” colleagues who had voted to object to the election.

Biggs added to OANN that McCarthy wasn’t “candid” with other House Republicans that a potential Trump-resignation call was under consideration, and also rapped the GOP leader’s recorded observations about removing some vocal Trump acolytes from social media.

Still, few Republicans were willing to criticize their leader when they arrived back in the Capitol on Tuesday night, their first in-person gathering since the explosive New York Times report last Thursday.

Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, argued that audio was a “nothingburger” that was taken “completely out of context.”

"They were talking about if they had the impeachment hearings, and he was impeached,” Rogers said of Trump. McCarthy, he added, was merely offering a recommendation that Trump step aside before Democrats successfully removed him from the White House.

In the early days of January 2021, at the time of McCarthy’s recorded call, some House Republicans were wagering that the Senate could vote to convict Trump.

"It's all inside baseball. Not a single constituent brought up that issue to me," Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) said of the McCarthy tape as he walked out of a meeting of senior Republicans.

"Nobody's talking about it," Davis added. "And frankly, I can't wait till Speaker McCarthy is sworn in."

The Times’ initial report on McCarthy’s post-insurrection comments — followed a day later by its release of audio from a private GOP meeting — jolted the House Republican conference at a time when many of its members are eager for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol to retreat from view. McCarthy’s members would much prefer to focus on their efforts to retake the majority come November.

In the recording, McCarthy is heard telling then-GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) that he was “seriously thinking” of speaking to Trump directly about whether he should resign after the attack on the Capitol.

The California Republican also told his leadership team on the tape that Trump had personally acknowledged at least some role in goading the rioters that day (which POLITICO reported at the time, citing multiple people with knowledge of the conversation).

Trump “told me he does have some responsibility for what happened and he’d need to acknowledge that,” McCarthy said in the phone call.

Some close to Trump have suggested the former president is not angry about the audio — instead, he sees it as a sign of his power because both the Senate and House GOP leaders appeared ready to turn on him after the Capitol siege and have since softened their approach. Of course, that could change; others say Trump is known for sitting on information that he can later use to deploy against someone who has slighted him.

In Biggs’ interview with OANN, he took particular issue with Cheney’s participation in the discussion about how to respond to Trump, despite the fact that the call occurred when she would still be expected to participate as a member of GOP leadership. Serious efforts to oust her from the conference’s upper echelons didn’t get underway until weeks after the taped call.

“It is incredibly undermining when we were back in the heat of that” time after the riot by Trump supporters, Biggs told the conservative outlet. “And we have a leader basically negotiating with Liz Cheney over whether he should resign or not, [which] becomes a huge trust issue for me.”

McCarthy, notably, didn't quite see Biggs' remarks as suggesting that the recording could affect his trust in his leader.

"I don't think that's what he said," McCarthy said of Biggs in a brief interview Tuesday night.

"Did you ask Jim Jordan?" the minority leader added, saying that the matter didn't come up in GOP meetings that afternoon.

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Anonymous statement on Capitol Police letterhead roils Jan. 6 riot commission debate

A statement released Wednesday on Capitol Police letterhead, said to be authored by multiple officers on the force, delivered a rare public rebuke of top Republicans for opposing a proposed bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot that injured scores on their force.

The unsigned missive was sent to the offices of every member of Congress hours before the House was set to vote on legislation creating the commission. Both House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week they oppose the proposed panel, which they dismissed as an attempt by Democrats to politicize the investigation into the Capitol siege.

“On Jan 6th, where some officers served their last day in US Capitol Police uniform, and not by choice, we would hope that Members whom we took an oath to protect, would at the very minimum support an investigation to get to the bottom of EVERYONE responsible and hold them 100 percent accountable no matter the title of position they hold or held,” reads the letter, which was not written or issued formally by the department.

The department distanced itself from the statement, noting that it "has no way of confirming it was even authored by USCP personnel. The U.S. Capitol Police does NOT take positions on legislation."

The identity of the statement's author or authors remains unclear. It was distributed by the office of Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), according to an email to House offices obtained by POLITICO. In the note, Raskin’s office said that the congressman — a lead manager for Donald Trump's second impeachment trial — had spent months in discussions with Capitol Police officers who have experienced “mental anguish” from the insurrection before deciding to release the statement.

Raskin’s staff told fellow House offices that multiple officers were behind the letter and chose to remain anonymous “because they are afraid of retribution for speaking out.”

The letter from the Capitol Police comes amid a flare-up in tensions over the Jan. 6 insurrection, as the House moves to consider a pair of bills related to the Capitol attack on the floor this week. Lawmakers will vote on the commission — which is modeled after a bipartisan investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks — as well as a sprawling security funding package intended to shore up Capitol security.

The Capitol attacks, and the role of the former president, also resurfaced this month as the GOP voted to expel Rep. Liz Cheney from their leadership ranks, at a time when Republicans are also downplaying the violence that unfolded that day.

At a hearing last week, Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) described footage of rioters who breached the Capitol as appearing like they were on a “normal tour visit.” Images surfaced showing Clyde barricading the door of the House floor on the day of the deadly attack.

One Capitol Police officer, Brian Sicknick, died a day after responding to the Jan. 6. attack after suffering from a stroke, the D.C. medical examiner found. And two officers who responded to the attack are reported to have died by suicide, one with the Capitol Police and one with the D.C. Police Department.

“It is inconceivable that some of the Members we protect, would downplay the events of January 6th. Member safety was dependent upon the heroic actions of the USCP,” the letter reads.

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