Politics

Cranky Congress: House GOP hopes a holiday can ease its factional warfare

House Republicans are leaving town Friday for a lengthy recess after a particularly chaotic stretch — but they have little reason to relax.

A group of GOP hard-liners revealed this week that they’ve unlocked a new tactic to disrupt their own party’s floor agenda. And while their more senior colleagues hope it’s just a phase, that may be wishful thinking.

Take House Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), who insisted in an interview that he’s not worried about right-wing rebels diverting floor time from his $886 billion Pentagon policy measure.

“I really think most of this stuff is going to be out of their system” by the time his defense bill gets a vote next month, Rogers said.

Yet a ringleader of that conservative floor blockade — who has had his own well-known run-in with Rogers — insists it’s only the beginning: “It’s actually going to be a new doctrine for us,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said after conservatives successfully pushed a measure to punish Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) on Wednesday.

“I told the speaker, he obviously had more fun today than he’s ever had as speaker,” Gaetz added. “Today was his best day as speaker.”

That stark disconnect reveals a serious risk for House Republicans: that the friction growing among them since Speaker Kevin McCarthy‘s debt deal with President Joe Biden has ushered in a new era of factional warfare within his conference. Even as they start a two-week recess, many GOP lawmakers worry that tensions in their midst could make for a summer of hell, with internal battles raging ahead of September’s government shutdown deadline.

Those tensions have worsened thanks to the House’s marathon springtime session, which has seen lawmakers in Washington every week since early May.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) captured the mood on Wednesday, getting caught on a hot mic after a colleague checked in on her during a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing: “Seven straight weeks, this is not healthy,” she said.

“I hate Republicans. I hate Democrats. I hate my staff. My staff hates me. Seven weeks is not good,” Wagner said in exaggerated jest. “John Boehner would have never put up with this. He thought if we were together for more than four weeks, then you know — I guess that is why we are all doing all this stupid shit.”

Many Republicans are still struggling with political whiplash: Less than a month ago, they notched what qualified as a big win on the debt deal, with McCarthy forcing Democrats into spending cuts that Biden’s party had vowed to avoid. But the prospect of a victory celebration evaporated days later as hard-liners blockaded the floor for nearly a week.

Now those same conservative rebels are waging an arms race over impeaching Biden and members of his Cabinet that could cost precious floor time during Congress’ busiest stretch — while risking their more vulnerable colleagues’ political fates.

The pent-up energy was evident on the House floor Friday as members hustled to catch planes and trains after the final votes of the work period. Suitcases were piled around the chamber and boxes of Corona beer were delivered to the Appropriations Committee suite before noon. One member toted a dog carrier through the ornate speaker’s lobby.

As the first vote languished for over 20 minutes, some members tried to speed things up themselves. (Wagner jokingly yelled “Shame!” as the minutes ticked by, with colleagues laughing alongside her.)

First-term Rep. Nick Langworthy (R-N.Y.) put it more bluntly. When asked on a scale of 1 to 10 how ready members were to return to their districts, he replied: “Eleven.”

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said Congress, “in some ways, is kind of like high school. Every so often, the kids need to get on the bus and go home.”

“We’ll be back. There’s a huge amount of stuff to do in the three weeks in July,” he added.

Republicans are eager for a fresh start when they return. The House will be tackling the biggest items on its annual to-do list, from that Pentagon policy bill to its annual spending bills. But those debates threaten to bring only more chaos unless McCarthy and his team can mollify much of the GOP’s right flank, which remains livid over the spending levels set out in the recent debt deal.

The speaker and his team took another step in that direction on Friday, bringing together the so-called five families representing different conference factions to talk almost entirely about the party’s spending plan for July.

McCarthy has already agreed to lower House GOP spending levels below the debt deal’s floor in order to win over conservatives — essentially reneging on what he and Biden agreed to. But many conservatives have another bone to pick: plans to claw back roughly $115 billion — maneuvers that they see as more of a mirage than fiscal austerity.

Some hard-liners are so angry that they’re considering rerunning their floor strategy from earlier this month, when they stunned GOP leaders by blocking their own party’s ability to bring up any legislation.

“I can see it happening, bringing people to the table,” said Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee, one of the 11 Republicans who held the floor hostage this month.

The strategy that gets deployed, Burchett suggested, would hinge on the outcome of ongoing conversations between McCarthy and the GOP conference: “I think Speaker McCarthy understands how serious folks are. I think the important thing is — and what he’s told us — everybody will be at the table.”

Besides McCarthy’s strategic outreach efforts, senior lawmakers believe time away from the Capitol could smooth the path to clearing those spending bills.

“Everyone’s tense. I mean, I noticed it on the floor,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), adding that the pervasive sense of cabin fever came up among members of both parties in the House gym earlier Friday morning.

“Everybody’s ready to go home.”

After seven straight weeks together, Republicans are ready for a break. As one said: “Every so often, the kids need to get on the bus and go home.”  

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