Moderate Republicans and those in competitive districts have largely lined up behind Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other GOP leaders as they have acquiesced to the evolving demands from hard-line conservatives.
But their patience is wearing thin.
“Here’s the deal. You’ve already used up the three genies that I have,” Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) said. “From here on out, I’m gonna be taking care of home base.”
“The 2024 election cycle is shaping up to be one where it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. And a lot of members that are in tough seats,” Gonzales said.
In a sign that the clashes between conservatives and more moderate Republicans could get more difficult to manage, House leaders punted floor consideration of an agriculture funding bill until after the August recess.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus and their allies had pushed for even lower spending levels and other policy reforms, while more moderate members took issue with those demands and a provision that would nullify a Biden administration rule expanding access to the abortion drug mifepristone.
But hard-line conservatives have for months kept up a successful pressure campaign to push the GOP’s slim majority further to the right.
GOP leaders accepted conservative demands to add culture war amendments on issues like abortion and diversity initiatives to the annual defense authorization bill — a move that sunk Democratic support for the traditionally bipartisan legislation.
After a conservative revolt over that shut down floor activity in June, the House Appropriations Committee agreed to craft appropriations bills at levels lower than the caps set out in the debt limit deal McCarthy struck with President Biden.
McCarthy has also inched closer to opening an impeachment inquiry into Biden in relation to the chamber’s probes of Hunter Biden’s foreign business activities, pleasing conservatives. But his cautious messaging has also gotten support from moderates who warn that rushing into impeachment could threaten those in swing districts.
It’s all added up to make the party’s vulnerable members increasingly nervous.
“If we keep members in swing districts — we put them on the plank every single week, we’re gonna have huge problems. And it may be too late for that,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) said.
“There’s only so much people can take before they say enough is enough,” Mace said.
Democrats have already jumped on swing district Republicans for going along with some of those votes, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) frequently poking Republicans for voting to reverse the Pentagon’s policy to pay for travel expenses for servicemembers who seek abortions.
“It’s ridiculous for these Republicans to claim to be ‘moderates’ on abortion rights when they vote to pass far-right Freedom Caucus priorities that chip away at women’s freedoms and restrict access to abortion care,” DCCC spokesperson Nebeyatt Betre said in a recent statement specifically about freshmen New York Republicans. “Their phony rhetoric can’t hide their blatantly anti-choice voting record.”
Perhaps adding insult to injury, many of the messaging provisions they’ve been forced to take votes on, like the Pentagon abortion policy, are unlikely to make it into the final version of the bill approved by the Senate.
Still, vulnerable Republicans are staying on message.
“The one provision the other side is talking about is federal funding of abortion,” said Rep. Nick LaLota (R-N.Y.), one of those New York first-term members. “We’ve said for years as a country, as a Congress, the federal government would not spend its resources funding abortion. They’ve changed their position.”
The week before the House left for a long recess, McCarthy brushed off a question about moderates who worry about appeasing the conservatives too much, saying the reporter had not quoted anyone specific.
And the week before that, he laughed in response to a question about the Freedom Caucus taking credit for forcing amendment votes on the defense bill, saying that he does not think the group is running the House.
The Speaker and other top Republicans have taken to teasing the press corps for writing about the divisions in the party that threaten their bills, saying disagreement is a normal part of the democratic process that comes with a more decentralized GOP leadership style.
“I begin to refer to them as the five stages of the D.C. press cycle of doubt,” McCarthy said at a recent press conference. “When I come in on Monday, the No. 1 question you ask me is not about policy, but can we pass it?”
“The doubt, despair of how great a challenge it will be to my speakership. After we pass it, you say, ‘That really wasn’t a big deal,’” McCarthy said — glossing over the fact the agriculture funding bill was forced to be delayed after internal disagreement.
Some Republicans are expressing confidence that important bills will not be pulled too far because of the will of the majority of the GOP and the House as a whole.
“The reality is, the majority of the conference is where they are. And as the amendment process plays out, as long as we have the ability to debate those issues on the floor and have our votes, I think we’ll do what we need to do,” Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) said.
Rep. Zach Nunn (R-Iowa) said he is open to hearing the opinions of “extremists on either side of the aisle,” but wants to make sure the majority view is respected as well.
“Whether you’re in highly competitive ones like mine, or whether you’re in solid red or blue ones, there’s still people in there that want to see government function and just being, you know, a naysayer to be a naysayer,” Nunn said. “Just being here so that you can have a Sunday morning talk show slot is not the way to govern.”
Hard-line conservatives, though, are not concerned about the gripes from moderates and vulnerable members.
Asked what he would say to moderates who are frustrated by the pressure from conservatives on spending bills and beyond, former House Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) responded: “Now you know what I felt like for seven years when the moderates are trying to cram crap down my throat.”
Mychael Schnell contributed.