Why a narrow, hard-right GOP House majority could spell chaos
By Jonathan Weisman
Josh Brecheen, an ardent Republican who is virtually assured of victory in November to represent an overwhelmingly red House seat in eastern Oklahoma, has a message that is geared as much toward GOP leaders in Washington as it is toward his party’s voters: He’s not going to the Capitol to make friends.
“Whomever is elected to this seat will be groomed for conformity into moderate positions and debt spending by the Republican establishment,” he proclaims on his campaign website. “Only a rare few won’t feast at the buffet of compromise.”
Brecheen assures voters he won’t be tempted.
As the general election season begins in earnest, the House Republican conference appears destined for a more conservative, fractious future no matter which party wins a majority, thanks to the candidates chosen by voters in the most solidly GOP districts.
Numerous Republican contenders in battleground districts have taken fringe positions or espoused conspiracy theories. Democrats have trained their sights on these candidates, hoping to block a wave of extremism. But the number of open seats in solidly Republican districts means that the party is still favored to secure a narrow majority.
That could spell trouble for Republican leaders like Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the man who would be speaker, and their ability to govern.
It could also mean that the government will struggle to perform such mundane tasks as keeping itself from defaulting on its debt and plunging the global financial system into chaos. At the same time, a Republican-led stream of impeachments — as some lawmakers have promised for the attorney general, the homeland security secretary, the education secretary and the president — could serve as an endless string of distractions for the executive branch.
“I will operate in kindness and love, and at the same time take hard stands,” Brecheen said in an interview, vowing, for instance, never to vote to raise the government’s borrowing limit, despite the risk of undermining the world’s faith in federal bond sales. “At some point, we have to draw a line in the sand.”
Other candidates have emerged who could revive a corps of conservatives who bedeviled past Republican speakers as they tried to raise Washington’s statutory borrowing limit, keep the government funded and operating, and approve annual military and intelligence policy bills. Such prospects seem so harrowing that one former Republican leadership aide, who insisted on anonymity, said he hoped Democratic leaders would raise the debt ceiling in the lame-duck session of Congress this winter rather than risk the first-ever default on U.S. government debt.
“I think it’ll be very difficult,” said Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst with the nonpartisan publication Inside Elections, a political forecaster. “It’s been remarkable to see Nancy Pelosi handle a narrow majority. So it is possible to pass bills with only a couple of votes to spare.”
But, he added, “Kevin McCarthy is not Nancy Pelosi.”
Since Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” of 1994, compromise in some corners of the party has been a dirty word, and those corners have grown, first with the Tea Party movement of 2010, then with the “America First” wave of Donald Trump’s era.
The former president’s hold on the party has added an element of uncertainty: The self-described America First Caucus, a small group of House members whose loyalty to him appears to eclipse all else, is likely to grow next year. And the group could break with the Republican House leadership at any time if Trump orders it to do so.
“If Trump endorses McCarthy and stays with him, these folks will stay with him,” said Doug Heye, a Republican leadership aide during the Obama-era GOP majorities. “But,” he added, “all bets are off if Trump pulls away.”
It is not hard to discern where the pressure points will develop.
Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Paul Gosar of Arizona have already formed the core of a House caucus that is loyal to Trump and further to the right than the House Freedom Caucus and its predecessors, groups of conservatives who tormented the two most recent Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan. The House Republicans’ right flank forced the shutdown of much of the federal government several times, and nearly prompted a default on government debt.
When Republicans were predicting a seismic sweep in November, the influence of the far-right caucus was less worrying for leadership. A strong Republican majority would give McCarthy room to maneuver — and to lose support from some far-right Republicans on raising the debt ceiling and funding the government. Now, however, as political winds shift toward the Democrats, prognosticators like David Wasserman, a House analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, see a narrow 10-to-20-seat Republican majority and trouble ahead.
Even with leverage, the Trump wing would have to know how to use it. Brendan Buck, who served as a top aide to Ryan when he was speaker, said that the House Freedom Caucus had never been clear on its policy aims, but that its members understood parliamentary procedures — how to threaten the tenure of a speaker — and how to use their unity and membership totals to wreak havoc.
The Greene-Boebert-Gaetz wing has never shown such acumen, Buck said, but it has something that Freedom Caucus leaders in the past and present have never had — a loyal, large following.
“At this point, they are way ahead of where the Freedom Caucus was in terms of outside strength,” Buck said. “They have huge profiles. They can get people animated more than the Freedom Caucus ever could.”