Old habits die hard.
As House Republicans settle into their new status in the minority—a post in which members typically unify to obstruct policy proposals from the majority—intraparty tensions remain as strong as ever, and could spell trouble for the GOP’s efforts to reclaim the chamber sooner rather than later.
In a conference-wide election on Wednesday, Republicans anointed their leaders for the 116th Congress. Outgoing Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was elected minority leader with 159 votes, besting the House Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan, who won 43 votes. Rounding out the party’s top three positions, Republicans also elected Steve Scalise as minority whip and Liz Cheney as conference chair, a position once held by her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
“We serve in a divided government, in a divided country,” McCarthy told reporters following his election. “Our goal is to unite us back together again.”
McCarthy might have added that he serves not just in a divided government and country, but also in a divided party. In the past week, many of the ideological factions that have stymied House Republicans’ legislative efforts in recent years also threatened to complicate McCarthy’s rise. The California Republican had long been the favorite to lead the conference. Even so, conservative members and outside groups spent their post-midterm days attempting to gin up support for his challenger, Jordan, a perpetual gadfly of House Republican leadership. And, as Politico first reported on Wednesday, McCarthy faced overtures from President Donald Trump himself to help Jordan acquire a prominent committee post following his expected failed bid for minority leader.
Never mind that McCarthy has little say in committee leadership, which is determined by the committee members themselves. The implication of Trump’s move was clear: Even in the minority, the lower chamber’s most conservative members will still attempt to exert whatever influence they have left over their leadership. It’s a sign that House Republicans could struggle even in the most basic tasks of unifying against the Democrats’ legislative agenda. And as Democrats consider opening investigations into the executive branch, that could mean trouble not only for Trump, but for the GOP’s attempts to reclaim the majority in the speedy time frame McCarthy said he hopes for.
A telling sign that conservatives still intend to make life difficult for leadership came on Tuesday night, when candidates gathered to make their pitches to the conference. According to two sources in the room, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the gathering, conservatives lobbed a round of hostile questions at McCarthy after he laid out his vision for the next year. Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas, the sources said, accused McCarthy of “spending money to promote himself over the team” ahead of the midterm elections. Gohmert cited ads that aired on conservative radio promoting McCarthy’s Build the Wall, Enforce the Law Act, largely seen, even among Republicans, as a show bill to fund Trump’s border wall. The sources said Gohmert criticized McCarthy for “talking up” the wall even as Republicans had failed for two years to adequately fund it.
That grudge will likely carry into the lame-duck session over the next two months, where in their last days in the majority, Republicans will have to cobble together a funding bill in order to avoid a government shutdown. During a conference meeting on Wednesday morning, according to two sources in the room who asked not to be named because of the private nature of the meeting, a handful of conservative members echoed Gohmert’s remarks from the night before, arguing that it was incumbent upon leadership to take wall funding and other immigration measures seriously while they still have the chance.
In other words, McCarthy will round out his time as majority leader engaging in the same battles he’s fought for two years now: attempting to placate Trump and his allies’ desire for aggressive action on immigration, while putting together a funding bill that can pass muster with the rest of his conference. He’ll avoid those responsibilities as minority leader once the next Congress begins. But, as Gohmert indicated, he may still enjoy the ire of conservatives who believe that leadership lost them meaningful progress on immigration—and control of the House altogether.
Following the leadership elections on Wednesday, McCarthy acknowledged his party’s crushing defeat to reporters. He noted that Republicans had lost ground in suburban areas and suffered for it in the midterms.
But neither he nor any other Republican leader mentioned Trump by name, or engaged in good faith with the question of just why the party had, for example, lost ground in the suburbs. Instead, McCarthy and Scalise explained their loss by stressing that “history was working against” them, citing the fact that the president’s party usually loses control of one or both chambers of Congress in the first midterm election after he takes office.
Even if members of the GOP leadership can expect intraparty scuffles in the months to come, they made clear that Democrats would surely face the same. Jason Smith, the newly elected conference secretary, alluded to the youth crisis, of sorts, roiling the soon-to-be majority. “This team right here, the average age of all of us combined is 52 years old,” he said. “The average age of the top three leading candidates on the other side is 78 years old.” Republicans may not have maintained control of the chamber, Smith seemed to suggest, but they had fresh faces ready to take over the next time they gain control.
And in an apparent acknowledgement of reports of party fissure, McCarthy told reporters after his victory that he hoped the early date of their leadership elections would signal Republican unity. “It’s healthy to have a debate,” McCarthy said. “I want to thank Jim Jordan for running.”