Will the GOP’s razor-thin House majority empower its shrinking centrist wing?

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.)
If a handful of conservative Republicans don’t support Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) for speaker next month, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), above, said, “That’s going to force folks like myself to work with Democrats to find an agreeable Republican.”
(Nati Harnik / Associated Press)

Even before Republicans take control of the House in January, their narrow majority is exposing the long-standing rift between the party’s right-flank Freedom Caucus and its dwindling center-right.

It’s a struggle that not only threatens to derail House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become the next speaker but also will shape how the GOP exerts its new authority over the next two years.

On one side are some vocal members of the influential Freedom Caucus who say McCarthy is not conservative enough to lead them. Many advocate using their House majority primarily to investigate Democrats and advance legislation that will appeal to conservative voters, even if it stands no chance of becoming law under a Democratic-led Senate.


At the other end is a dying breed: more centrist-leaning Republicans who say the party must show it can work with Democrats on a bipartisan basis to make progress over the next two years on issues such as inflation, raising the debt ceiling and standing up to China.

“We’ve got a lot of things that Americans are looking to Republicans in the House to address,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), who serves as whip in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

“If we don’t make progress on inflation, on China, on the supply chain, on Big Tech, shame on us,” Johnson said. “These are areas where we can find common ground. We can find some votes on the other side to deal with things like Big Tech and China, and we need to.”

Johnson warned his fellow House Republicans against focusing solely on scoring political points against Democrats in the run-up to the 2024 election.

“This playing politics for 24 months out of a 24-month cycle does not serve America,” he said. “They want us to get things done. They don’t want us yelling and screaming and fighting.”

Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) credited centrist Republicans with delivering the House to the GOP by winning midterm races in competitive districts.


“We’re the majority makers,” he said. “It’s easy to be spouting all of this rhetoric if you’re in a [predominantly Republican district]. But it’s quite another thing for those of us whose constituents are going to hold us accountable. Government is not a game, and America’s sick of the dysfunction.”

Joyce, who chairs the center-right Republican Governance Group, complained about the “grandstanding” of some of his colleagues and said Republicans must reach across the aisle.

“We’re going to have to work with the other side, so you’re going to have to have reasonable conversations with folks,” Joyce said.

Some Freedom Caucus members laugh off such assertions as naive.

“In divided government, I don’t think we should fool people into believing that there’s some magical bill that we’re going to pass that [Senate Majority Leader Charles E.] Schumer is going to sign onto and that Joe Biden’s going to allow to become law,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said Saturday on “Huckabee” with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Gaetz, a Freedom Caucus member, said Republicans should focus on using their new oversight powers to probe issues related to the border, the FBI and Biden’s son, Hunter.

The first major battle of the new House Republican majority is the race for speaker.

McCarthy has struggled in recent weeks to win over Trump supporters and part of his party’s skeptical conservative wing. He refrained from criticizing Trump for dining last month with a well-known white supremacist or for Trump’s comments about the “termination” of some articles of the Constitution.


McCarthy has also vowed to kick off several Democrats from their House committees, including fellow California Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank).

But at least five Freedom Caucus members still insist publicly that they will not support him.

While small, that’s enough to stop the Bakersfield lawmaker from clinching the 218 votes he needs from his 222-member conference in a Jan. 3 floor vote for speaker.

On Tuesday, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), one of those opposed to McCarthy, said he would run against McCarthy next month. Biggs lost an internal speaker vote to McCarthy last month, 188-31.

While most House Republicans support McCarthy, including many in the Freedom Caucus, concerns are growing about how their narrow majority will impact control of the chamber.

“We have a very slim majority: 222 seats,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a caucus member who supports McCarthy. “That makes every single one of us powerful.”

The close-knit Freedom Caucus members long ago established their reputation as one of the most powerful House factions by using their several dozen votes to bring down their own leaders. In 2015 they toppled former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and then blocked McCarthy’s first attempt to grab the top spot.

Now GOP moderates are reminding Freedom Caucus members that the math is much easier today.

At least one Republican has publicly vowed to work with Democrats to find a moderate GOP alternative speaker if McCarthy is rejected again by Freedom Caucus members.


“I’m afraid if there’s four or five or six — and they don’t give in — well, that’s going to force folks like myself to work with Democrats to find an agreeable Republican,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.). “We’re not going to be held hostage.”

One important and unanswered question is whether GOP moderates will follow through on such threats.

Being a moderate lost much of its luster in both political parties in recent years. The number of centrist Republicans and Democrats in the House has dwindled thanks largely to partisan redistricting efforts that have reduced the number of swing districts.

President Trump sidelined many more moderate Republicans who spoke out against his policies or voted for his impeachment. Some Republicans interviewed for this article resisted even being publicly labeled a “moderate.”

Tim Miller, former communications director for Republican Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign, questioned whether GOP moderates have the strength or the numbers to stand up to the party’s right flank.

“The ‘moderate’ caucus is pretty hollowed out,” Miller, who left the GOP after the 2020 election, wrote in an email. He viewed threats to join Democrats in a bipartisan speaker vote as posturing.


“I just don’t think there’s a strong enough moderate element within the caucus anymore to try something like this,” he said.

As Republicans openly spar over who should — or shouldn’t — lead them, Democrats appear to be enjoying the show.

In a statement following the successful election last week of Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands) to the new Democratic leadership team, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) highlighted her party’s “orderly transition,” a subtle but stark contrast to what’s happening across the aisle.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s a possibility,” Jeffries said Sunday of a bipartisan speaker vote, during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a conservative Democrat who opposes abortion rights, suggested moderate Democrats haven’t decided whether they would support the idea being floated by Bacon, but said he thought McCarthy would ultimately prevail among the House GOP.

McCarthy backers voice confidence he will prevail, noting his opponents have put up no viable alternative.


“I think there’s a certain faction that is just comfortable watching the world burn,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), member of the center-right Republican Governance Group. “I’m glad it’s very small. But I think that exists, and there’s not really a lot you can do with that.”