‘We Used to Be Called Moderate. We Are Not Moderate.’

The GOP’s self-proclaimed “pragmatists” could soon have the most power in Congress—if they choose to use it.

An illustration of the word "moderate"—with some of its letters replaced by symbols, as though it were an obscenity—placed over Kevin McCarthy's mouth
Alex Wong / Getty; The Atlantic

Early this summer, the federal government will, in all likelihood, exhaust the “extraordinary measures” it is now employing to keep paying the nation’s bills. As the country careens toward that fiscal abyss, Congress will face a now-familiar stalemate: Republicans will refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless Democrats agree to cut spending. Democrats will balk. Markets will slide—perhaps precipitously—and the economy will swiftly turn south.

When that moment arrives, the most important people in Washington won’t be those who work in the White House, or even the party leaders who occupy the Capitol’s most palatial offices. They will be the House Republicans who sit closest to the political center: the so-called moderates. The GOP’s majority is narrow enough that any five Republicans could dash Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s plan to demand a ransom for the debt ceiling. They will have to decide whether to stand with him or join with Democrats to avert a first-ever default on the nation’s debt.

“Those guys will be called on to save the day,” says former Representative Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican who, until his retirement in 2018, was one of the House’s most prominent moderates.

Dent is talking about Republicans such as Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska, whose Omaha district voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020. Bacon is a leader of the faction of Republicans hoping to serve as a counterweight to the House Freedom Caucus and the far-right hard-liners who extracted all manner of concessions from McCarthy earlier this month in exchange for allowing him to become speaker. During the four days of voting that McCarthy endured, Bacon regularly held court with reporters outside the House chamber, castigating the holdouts as the “chaos caucus” and comparing them to the Taliban.

Bacon, a 59-year-old former Air Force commander first elected in 2016, styles himself as a pragmatist and a realist, and he is keenly aware of the sway that he and other like-minded Republicans could have. Indeed, he and his allies have already blocked two bills backed by some on the far right—including a measure to replace the federal income tax with a 30 percent sales tax—from coming up for a vote. But don’t call him a moderate. “I’d rather be called a conservative who gets things done,” Bacon told me.

In rejecting the moderate label, Bacon is no different than the other 221 Republicans now serving in the House, virtually all of whom describe themselves as some version of conservative. As the party has moved to the right, so, too, has its leftmost flank. The decline of the GOP moderate is a story more than two decades in the making, but it carries particular significance at a moment when centrist lawmakers could wield so much power. If they choose to use it. If they exist at all anymore.

Two years ago, Bacon picked up the discarded flag of a dormant GOP group called the Main Street Caucus. The caucus is the House extension of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a political organization founded 25 years ago by then-Representative Amo Houghton of New York. The original Main Street Partnership was explicitly, and proudly, moderate; Houghton called himself a “militant moderate,” and the group’s aim was to “serve as a voice for centrist Republicans,” as well as to soften the GOP’s harsh rhetoric and policies on abortion, gay rights, and the environment, among other issues.

The Partnership remains active—it spent $25 million in support of Republican candidates last year—but it has rebranded itself to stay relevant in today’s GOP. Searching through its website history on the Internet Archive, I found that the Partnership dropped the words moderate and centrist from its mission statement sometime in the fall of 2011, shortly after the last new Republican House majority forced a confrontation over the debt ceiling with a Democratic president. They’ve since been replaced by more generic descriptors, such as common sense and pragmatic.

“We used to be called moderate. We are not moderate,” says Sarah Chamberlain, the Partnership’s CEO and a former aide to Houghton (who retired from Congress in 2004 and died in 2020). Its members now identify as “pragmatic conservatives.” “The entity from day one has the same name, but it looks very different,” Chamberlain told me.

The Main Street Caucus isn’t the only congressional group whose members once might have identified as moderate. Others include the Republican Governance Group (formerly known as the Tuesday Group) and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. A couple dozen Republicans, including Bacon, are members of all three groups. But they each eschew the word, in part, Bacon explained to me, because in primaries “it’s used as a cudgel.”

Another reason is they are simply more conservative than their predecessors. As Republicans who embraced the moderate label, including Dent, have left Congress over the past 20 years, the Republicans replacing them have moved ever further from the political center. Many of the original members of the Tuesday Group and the Main Street Partnership, for example, backed abortion rights; Dent, who left the House five years ago, told me he believed he was either the last, or one of the last, House Republicans to hold that position.

Earlier this month, the Main Street Caucus—the largest of the three groups, with about 60 members—elected as its chair a Republican even more conservative than Bacon, Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota. When I spoke with him by phone, Johnson eagerly volunteered that both he and the group’s new vice chair, Representative Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma, earned higher ratings than the average House Republican on the scorecard kept by Heritage Action, the conservative activist group that has warred with GOP moderates for years. “We are members who overwhelmingly want to deliver policy wins—conservative policy wins,” Johnson told me.

The big question now is whether the GOP’s self-identified pragmatists will stand up to—or simply behind—the party leadership in the fiscal battles to come. During the speakership fight, Johnson, Bacon, and other pragmatists served as McCarthy’s protective guard, staring down the GOP holdouts by declaring that they would vote for no one other than McCarthy. Yet, with only a few complaints, they largely blessed the concessions the new speaker made to empower the far right at his own expense.

Bacon assured me that he and his fellow pragmatists will use the leverage they have, noting the two bills that they had already prevented from coming for a vote. On the debt-ceiling debate, however, many of the deal-seeking Republicans are sounding like McCarthy, who has said the president must endorse spending cuts in order to lift the borrowing limit. “We’re not going to raise the debt ceiling until we have some additional fiscal responsibility returned to spending in this town,” Johnson told me. He put the onus on Biden and the Democrats to negotiate, equating their refusal to do so with “choosing the path of legislative terrorism.” Other members of the Main Street Caucus struck a slightly more malleable tone. “We have to be aggressive on spending, and it’s something I ran for Congress on, so I’m comfortable with that,” Representative Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota told me. “But we also have to continue to be able to govern.”

The primary mechanism that the pragmatic Republicans could use to bypass McCarthy is a discharge petition, which would force a vote on increasing the debt limit. Given the GOP’s narrow lead in the House, only five Republicans would need to join Democrats to get the requisite support. (One GOP leader of the Problem Solvers Caucus, Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, mentioned this as a possibility when the hard-liners were blocking McCarthy’s path to speaker.) “It would be very difficult for me to sign a discharge petition against leadership,” Armstrong told me. “I would never say never, but I would be very, very skeptical that I would ever sign that.” Yet in the next breath, Armstrong suggested that if the stock market were crashing, that could change his mind: “I’m not cratering every senior in my district’s 401(k). I’m not doing it.”

A discharge petition is an imperfect vehicle for resolving a debt-ceiling crisis; because of the House’s procedural rules, gathering signatures would have to begin weeks or even months in advance. In 2015, Dent helped lead a bipartisan coalition in using a discharge petition to go around the GOP leadership to pass legislation reviving the Export-Import Bank, a federal credit agency that conservatives wanted to let die. Then-Speaker John Boehner had already announced his departure, having been ushered into retirement by a far-right revolt. “Ordinarily, the speaker would be pretty upset about it. I can assure you he was not,” Dent recalled.

A dozen years ago, it was Boehner leading a House GOP majority bent on securing spending cuts in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling. After several rounds of negotiations failed—including an attempted “grand bargain” on taxes and entitlement programs with then-President Barack Obama—Congress agreed to form a “super committee” to put in place budget caps that became known as sequestration. (Congress would later prevent many of these caps from being put in place.)

Dent predicted that Republicans would win few if any concessions from Democrats for raising the borrowing limit this time around. “You’re going to get something close to a clean debt-ceiling bill,” he told me. Perhaps Biden will agree to form a fiscal commission to propose possible spending cuts, Washington’s favorite face-saving punt. A fig leaf, in other words. Bacon told me he’s hoping for something more, such as a commitment to keep increases in federal spending below inflation. “I’d like to see more than a fig leaf. I’d like to at least see some underwear on.”

What’s all but certain is that a significant chunk of the House Republican conference won’t go for that kind of deal. Republicans told me that they doubt the party could pass any debt-ceiling increase on its own, and many conservatives might reject any deal that McCarthy could get Democrats to endorse, if he can get Democrats to negotiate at all. That will put the pressure once again on the GOP’s pragmatists, the Republicans who pass for moderate in 2023 but won’t dare use that word. If and when the debt crisis comes, they could well be the ones deciding between, well, moderation and default.