After a rocky start to their new majority, House Republicans have gotten in a groove, notching wins that squeeze Democrats and President Biden. But as they approach 100 days in power, with debt ceiling negotiations and major legislation on the horizon, the challenge will be to keep the conference in harmony.
The drawn-out election of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in January had observers wondering whether the caucus could get agreement on major issues with a five-seat majority. Pushback from moderates led to a scramble to get enough votes to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee and forced a delay on a border and immigration bill that had been expected to have an early floor vote.
In the last several weeks, though, the House GOP notched some victories in sending legislation to Biden and dividing Democrats.
Biden reversed his position to back a disapproval of D.C. crime legislation — blindsiding House Democrats. The president is also expected to issue his first veto over a House GOP-led measure to nullify a federal rule over considering environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards in investments.
In committee probes, House Oversight Committee Republicans received long-sought access to the Treasury Department suspicious activity reports concerning businesses connected to Biden’s family members. And Border Patrol chief Raúl Ortiz said at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing that the U.S. does not have “operational control” of the southern border, breaking with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and boosting House GOP arguments that could build a foundation for impeachment of the secretary.
“We've had some big wins,” said House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.). “And it's all rooted in fighting for the families who are struggling and following through on our promises. We ran on a very specific agenda. We talked about addressing inflation and lowering energy costs and confronting crime in communities, and securing the border, and having a parent's Bill of Rights.”
“Our conference is very unified right now,” Scalise added.
Speaker race connected caucus
Members say that as messy as the Speaker race was at the time, it helped to build relationships across factions of the conference.
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a McCarthy ally who was deeply involved in negotiations during that saga, told The Hill that he did not know hardline Freedom Caucus member Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) very well beforehand. But now, he has a “tremendous amount of respect” for him.
“It was a healthy exercise of talking to each other and getting to know each other and build more trust,” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said of the Speaker election. “The trust we built there is going to continue to pay dividends for us this year.”
Still, high-profile controversies have overshadowed some of the House GOP’s successes.
McCarthy gave Fox News host Tucker Carlson access to Capitol security footage from Jan. 6, 2021, and Carlson’s use of it to portray the riot as “mostly peaceful chaos” sparked bipartisan outrage. The Speaker has declined to support removing Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) from office over his admitted lies and questions about his finances until investigations into him are complete, breaking with a number of Santos’s House GOP colleagues in New York.
And major legislative issues coming up could test the House GOP’s harmony.
“We've got some really, really challenging things ahead, whether it's [the Federal Aviation Administration funding] bill, the farm bill, FISA authorization – we obviously have the budget and debt ceiling things that are on the horizon,” Graves said. “But I'm confident that we've got a good foundation and we can continue working through these issues with some of these members.”
Budget, debt limit loom large
House Republicans gathered Sunday to start strategizing about what comes next at their annual issues conference in Orlando, Fla., which runs through Tuesday.
One of the top items is certain to be debt limit negotiations. Biden has called on the House GOP to release their budget before engaging in negotiations, but McCarthy has said the White House’s delay in releasing a budget created a domino effect.
The House Freedom Caucus, though, recently released a blueprint for budget cuts as a condition for considering a vote to raise the debt ceiling. While it is likelier to be more aggressive than the House GOP Budget Committee’s eventual plan, the hardline group indicated it is open to negotiation
“One of the big keys is to have that open channel of communication and have all voices heard and for that to be sincere, not just window dressing, but for it to be real,” said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), chair of the House Freedom Caucus. “I know I don't always get my way, but I gotta have a say. And I think if everybody feels like they're given a fair shake, and you know, this is the best thing that we can get under the circumstances, that goes a long way to bringing people on board.”
Those open channels of communication – which include regular meetings with McCarthy and the heads of the caucuses – marks a change from previous GOP Speakers, Perry said.
Energy bill brings a test
Later this month, Republicans will bring a vote on their first major legislative package that McCarthy designated as H.R. 1: The Lower Energy Costs Act, a sweeping bill led by Scalise aimed at boosting energy production and streamlining the permitting process.
Republicans see boosting energy production as widely popular in the GOP, and one that touches on a number of other priorities. Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said it will be “dead on arrival” in the Senate, but could mark a starting point in negotiations on potential permitting reform.
“Energy has been at the heart of a lot of the conversations families have been having about the high cost of everything, from inflation to things at the grocery store,” Scalise said.
But even though the issue is popular, the package will test party unity, with members saying there is still work to be done to usher it across the finish line in a slim majority.
“As with most big bills, you're threading a needle. You've got issues all over the place on the right on the left, that you've got to deal with,” Graves said. “So there are still ongoing conversations with a number of folks, making sure that we're striking that right balance.”
Mychael Schnell contributed.