Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) will never forget his first meeting with House GOP leaders shortly after winning his seat in 2016, a year when voters handed Republicans the White House and continued control of Congress.
He recalls bluntly telling Republican leaders, including then-Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), that having all levers of power in Washington came with immense responsibility that hinged on a specific decision.
“You can take the high road and do what we don’t need to be doing right now, but what we should be doing, which is reaching across the aisle and building two party solutions — or we can continue down the erroneous path of single-party solutions,” Fitzpatrick recalled. “At some point, somebody’s got to change that trend.”
His warning was not heeded, and as he predicted, the problem grew “exponentially worse.”
As House Republicans prepare for the majority once again, more moderate members of the conference are banding together to prevent another ideological clash with their staunchly conservative colleagues. They say the party’s lackluster performance in this year’s midterm elections proves voters are rejecting the extremes in exchange for individuals who prioritize governing.
The GOP’s razor-thin majority — which will stand at four or five seats once all races are called — has given the more moderate members of the conference a mandate to find a voice equally as powerful as, if not more influential than, the most conservative allies of former president Donald Trump in their ranks, who many consider grandstanders over legislators.
“I think we have to flex our muscles a little bit more and say, ‘We’re going to govern America,’” said Rep. Don Bacon (Neb.), a Republican in a swing district who won another term in November. “There’s a small number that want their way or the high way. Well, that’s how we fail. We can’t let 2 percent or 3 percent drive the whole Congress.”
By the numbers, more moderate and governance-minded Republicans outrank the roughly 30 members of the House Freedom Caucus and far-right flank, which includes members who are staunch Trump allies who reject establishment leadership and how they govern the House. The GOP Governance Group and Main Street Caucus are each made up of about 50 of the same Republicans who represent swing districts, are willing to work across the aisle and want to ensure the party governs.
But the extremes within the Republican ranks have expanded since the party last had the House majority, a reality that has empowered a handful of Freedom Caucus members to demand concessions in exchange for their support. They have been aggressively lobbying Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is working to appease the group so that he can clinch the 218 votes needed to officially be elected speaker Jan. 3.
While the differences that exist within the GOP conference “pale in comparison to the differences” between Republicans and Democrats, according to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), several Freedom Caucus members do not want to see any colleague reach across the aisle and have previously condemned those who have done so as “Republicans in name only,” or RINOs.
But in what he considers a positive sign, Fitzpatrick has already experienced something different from the previous Republican majority in 2016.
“I have probably had more conversations with my colleagues in the Freedom Caucus in the past two weeks that I have in the past five years. To their credit, they’ve been coming up to me on the floor, wanting to work together and I’m very encouraged by that because they understand the tight margins,” he said.
A majority of the Republican conference interviewed over the past year has remained united on the need and desire to govern. Several who served in the last majority remembering that a small group of staunchly conservative Freedom Caucus members formed a blockade against GOP priorities that made it impossible to pass legislation they had promised voters they would deliver.
GOP leaders this year tried to unite the fractious conference before the election by releasing a statement of principles they dubbed the “Commitment to America,” to get buy-in from all corners on policy objectives. The governance-focused members hope their colleagues remember they share common goals even though the negotiating process may get tricky — a similar dynamic that played out with House Democrats this term when they had a similarly slim majority.
But if their more-far-right colleagues do not get onboard with the party’s stated agenda, some Republicans have said they are not afraid to reach across the aisle and find Democrats who support raising the debt ceiling, funding the government and other measured priorities.
“Your goal is to hit a home run, but you’re going to hit singles periodically. That’s what our country was designed to do,” Bacon said. “We have to be willing to hit singles, work with our Democratic colleagues and find areas where we agree on. Otherwise, we fail.”
Setting the groundwork for the majority
The first order of business for many Republican lawmakers is “organizing the Congress” — in other words, making sure McCarthy is elected speaker without much chaos.
Five members of the Freedom Caucus have publicly sworn they would not vote for McCarthy for speaker on the House floor next month. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), the former Freedom Caucus chairman, officially announced Tuesday that he would challenge McCarthy after earning 31 votes on a secret ballot for the job last month.
But not all Freedom Caucus members agree with the five who argue McCarthy is too “establishment” to lead conservatives. Some members note that McCarthy has made a concerted effort to befriend Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and include more members of the Freedom Caucus in leadership discussions after witnessing the group work to oust Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Ryan.
Upon the House’s return from Thanksgiving break, McCarthy convened what some moderate members joked was the “meeting of the five families” to begin finding common ground within the conference. Roughly 20 lawmakers, from the most centrist to the strongest Trump allies, remained in a room with McCarthy for hours in what was described as a “breakthrough” by Jordan and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and a “good start” by Bacon.
Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) has not taken part in what could become routine check-ins between different factions of the conference. But he found it significant that McCarthy is being forced by the narrow margin to consider all viewpoints in the conference, a good sign that McCarthy is trying to be a leader for everyone.
“I can’t find a lot of fault with how he’s trying to go about this. He’s 30 votes short in the vote that we tabulated back in the conference, and he knows that he’s got to, you know, build some bridges to the opposition,” said Womack, who previously left the influential Steering Committee after McCarthy rejected his request to remove Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) from his committee assignments after he delivered a speech on the National Mall ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. “It’s a pretty good exercise for him, frankly.”
Members are also working among themselves to ensure decorum and respect are reestablished within the conference. GOP Governance Group chair David Joyce (R-Ohio) said he has spoken to incoming chair Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) of the Republican Study Committee, which makes up the largest faction of conservatives in the conference, to make sure colleagues stop publicly condemning Republicans who vote with Democrats on some issues.
GOP leaders often leave members free to vote their conscious on policies that can help their reelection efforts or help keep vulnerable seats in play. Greene and other Trump allies attacked the 13 Republicans who helped pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill last year, which strained relationships within the conference.
“Say why you didn’t vote for it. Say why it’s not right for your district,” Joyce said about what he calls the “exotics” in the conference. “Don’t s–t on everybody else who know it’s good for their district or who need to take these votes to address their constituency, because that’s not healthy for all of us.”
Governance-focused members also worry staunchly conservative colleagues may allow “the perfect to become the enemy of the good,” and deter the broader conference from hitting home runs. Using a sports analogy, Womack said the first moments in the majority will be like “the first few minutes of the game,” where the tone for the rest of the game is set.
“We’re going to have the ball in the House. We’re going to be able to move a lot of things that we have promised in our ‘Commitment to America,’” he said. “Changing the status quo is probably going to be, in the vernacular of football, getting a series of first downs. We’re going to have to get incremental progress on a lot of things because the hopes and dreams of people that want to go big and be bold is probably not a realistic plan.”
GOP majority runs through swing districts
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) knew her first reelection race would not be easy after she flipped her Charleston area seat in 2020 by only a percentage point. Though redistricting shored up her swing district to lean more Republican, Mace knew it would be risky to just tout the party line that excites the conservative base.
Mace finished her election this year talking about inflation and crime, but unlike most Republicans, she openly talked about the need for Congress to pass federal exceptions to abortion bans in a state where the right to an abortion is now under threat. She won by roughly 15 points.
“I talked about finding middle ground when so many people just ignored it. Those that wanted to dive in on fringe issues, or fringe politicians were the ones that were the losers that night,” she said about the midterms. “The winners were the left of center, right of center, centrist and moderates who, as a conservative, are willing to reach across the aisle.”
Mace said it was a “mistake” by Republicans who turned “their backs on millions of women that were angry” about the Supreme Court reversing Roe v. Wade this summer.
Moderate Republicans stressed that it was incumbent on the conference to understand why they did not garner the larger majority they had anticipated. Womack stressed that it’s important for them all to remember “who constitutes this new majority,” pointing to the New York delegation for flipping Democratic seats that will be harder to protect during a presidential election where Democratic turnout is traditionally higher than during the midterms.
“We have to be extremely careful as we prosecute our agenda this next year because what we do or fail to do, will go a long way in setting the conditions for the 2024 election,” he said.
Having served in the House for over a decade, Womack warned that choosing partisan battles can endanger the majority makers, like when Republicans threatened to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which includes protections for people with preexisting medical conditions.
The need to get things done to build trust with voters remains a big motivator for more pragmatic Republicans to exercise a muscle they have not had to use as strenuously in the past.
“I think you can’t just be against something, you know?” Bacon said. “Being against something maybe works in the more hard-right, hard-left districts. I think you have to stand for something, too.”
How these Republicans go about coalescing and finding their common voice may become an individualized task. While some expressed that they will not hold their tongue if colleagues demoralize the institution of the House, others say it is worth remaining judicious in how often they use their voice.
Womack rarely speaks up against the conference. But when he does, colleagues know to take him seriously, like when he denounced leaders for not punishing Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) after he falsely implicated the conference in telling a radio host that he has seen GOP colleagues partake in orgies and drugs use.
“I’m not going to out shout anybody. You’re never going to get anywhere by talking over other people and trying to turn up the volume because people will eventually just shut that off,” he said.
While some Republicans are preparing to work with Democrats and act as a conduit to them for GOP leaders, they want to bridge the divides within their conference before extending outreach to mend the broken relationship between the parties.
As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Fitzpatrick said he has sensed that foreign dictators have concluded U.S. democracy will never be defeated by their external forces. Instead, they are capitalizing on the “troubling trend” of single-party solutions and the erosion of bipartisanship that has led many to firmly believe those with differing views across the aisle — or within their own party — are “bad” people, making it impossible to unite around common American ideals.
“They’re never going to be beat us from the outside. The only way they can defeat the world’s oldest and strongest democracy is from within by getting us to fight with each other,” he said. “Only America can take down America.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.