House Freedom Caucus has complained about Boehner's leadership
Some conservatives say McCarthy didn't try enough to win them over
House conservatives have chafed under the leadership of Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team since the GOP took over the majority in 2011. Now, they have their double revenge.
Boehner is resigning as speaker and his No. 2, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, shocked Washington on Thursday by dropping out of the race for the top job.
House Freedom Caucus members and other lawmakers on the right flank of the party could hardly contain their satisfaction after McCarthy’s announcement.
“This is almost indicative of how they’ve run the floor for four years and nine months,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, a member of the caucus. “No advance notice. I mean, who would have thought, two speakers in two weeks?”
He added, “You’ve got to say K Street is worried. They spent a lot of money to line up leadership here and now their two top guys can’t make it, can’t stay at the top. And (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell’s got to be a little worried, too.”
But despite their success, the Freedom Caucus doesn’t appear to have a concrete path forward of its own.
It announced on Wednesday that it would, as a whole, back Florida Rep. Daniel Webster for speaker – which ensured that McCarthy would likely not have enough Republican votes to get the 218 necessary on the House floor to win the post. After meetings amongst themselves Thursday afternoon post-McCarthy’s shocker, they stood by that assessment, but left the door open.
“What we’ll be doing next is probably standing by Mr. Webster,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina said. “He may actually have a broader base of appeal right now. … If anybody else wants to run, we’re happy to talk to them.”
Several of the Freedom Caucus members demurred when asked if the move was a show of their force – but they were quick to point out that their ideas are picking up steam.
“If we move toward regular order and a good process, then it’s a victory for the country,” Rep. Dave Brat, R-Virginia, said when asked if it was a victory for the Freedom Caucus.
McCarthy could have won us over, conservatives say
Freedom Caucus members said they gave McCarthy a way to win them over – they just don’t think he wanted to make the pledges they sought.
“In (the meeting) he said, ‘There’s no way I can get to 218,’ but I don’t really think he’s tried,” Huelskamp said. “He made no serious offers on anything, so we presumed that was going to happen after today.”
Huelskamp’s colleague and caucus founding member, North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, said he wouldn’t say McCarthy didn’t reach out, but he clearly didn’t do all he could to convince them.
“I do think that there was a path to victory for Kevin. And that path to victory is not always easy, but I do think that there was a path to victory just based on conversations that I had with many of my colleagues,” Meadows said. “It’s about changing the process.”
Earlier in the day, Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon said it was “pretty darn” likely that Freedom Caucus members would carry their opposition to McCarthy all the way to the floor unless “dramatic changes” were made to House procedure.
“There’s been a lot of talk by all the candidates, all three of them, about changing the top-down approach to a bottom-up approach, but talk is really cheap. It has to be etched in stone,” Salmon said after hearing McCarthy make his final pitch to the conference in a morning meeting. “We’ve been promised and lied to so many times we’ve stopped counting. So it’s not just about promises, it’s about making sure that it’s in place.”
Salmon cited requests to have bills go through committee to make it to the floor, having committees elect their own chairs as opposed to speaker selection, and having the conference steering committee be less stacked with speaker cronies and have more party representation.
Rather than take an explicit victory lap, many members instead backhandedly praised McCarthy for making the right choice in the face of their lack of support.
“I can say that I talked to Kevin personally at length after he said he was not going to run, and everything he said suggested that he wanted to do this for America, for unity of the party, and it was really indicative of a fine statesman,” Meadows said.
That was echoed by conservatives who are not in the Freedom Caucus but have also opposed McCarthy.
Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert said he was and is backing Webster said he’s not “worried about the power of the conservatives,” and he is focused instead on the whole conference being empowered.
“When a guy puts the interests of a party above self interest, I’m not going to say anything not good about him,” Gohmert said of McCarthy. “What Kevin has done is extremely selfless, and I think he’s done a brave and courageous thing. He was close to being right there and he chose to unite the conference rather than waging battles.”
Even McCarthy’s fellow Californian, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, said McCarthy was in trouble after comments he made last week about the Benghazi select committee hurting Hillary Clinton.
“Because of his verbal blunder last week, there were some of us that were very apprehensive and this going to create great unity among Republicans,” Rohrabacher said.
Moderates aren’t so sure.
“No I don’t think it’s great for the party,” said Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger. “But look, I think we will come through stronger.”
One person ready to take full credit: presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“They’re giving me a lot of credit for that because I said you really need someone very, very, tough and very smart,” Trump said at a campaign event in Las Vegas on Thursday.
CNN’s Manu Raju, Deirdre Walsh, Ted Barrett and Dana Bash contributed to this report