Freedom Caucus frets over how far to push its rebellionMarch 30, 2021
A group of House ultra-conservatives who rose to power by making life hell for GOP leaders is now facing cracks in its once-united front — which some worry could foreshadow an even wider rift if Republicans win back the majority next year.
A notable split has emerged inside the House Freedom Caucus in recent weeks over its members’ use of delaying tactics on the floor to protest Democratic policies. That effort has grabbed attention and ruffled leadership, two hallmarks of the Freedom Caucus, but it’s also snarled legislative proceedings enough to breed frustration among some members of the far-right crew.
Some in the caucus criticize the legislative slowdown, led by Freedom Caucus Chair Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and several others, as a failure to act strategically. Conservatives should challenge a select few bills rather than a wide swath, these Republicans argue, to avoid diluting the potency of moments when they choose to tie the House in procedural knots. Internal critics also warn that their fellow Freedom Caucus members’ antics could backfire if Democrats respond by starting to block the GOP from using an expedited process to advance its own non-controversial bills.
But other Freedom Caucus members feel strongly that wreaking havoc on the floor is part of their brand and they need to deploy every procedural weapon at their disposal. After all, regardless of how they feel about the current floor strategy, House conservatives share a frustration with the way Democrats are running the chamber — and using their limited power to force recorded votes is one of the only real ways they can vent that energy.
“The level of division is whether to use it on every single bill or to withhold it on some bills,” said one Freedom Caucus member, who was granted anonymity to more freely discuss internal group dynamics. “If you say unconditionally, ‘we’re using [our power] on every motion,’ there’s no negotiation possible. So that’s been the breakdown — is whether to object to everything or some things.”
In a sign that the issue is far from settled, the band of roughly 40 hard-liners met recently to debate whether to use the strategy in a blanket fashion or on a more limited basis, according to several GOP lawmakers and aides who attended. And some frustrated Freedom Caucus members have even started skipping out altogether when their cohorts force floor votes on motions to adjourn.
Others have downplayed the internal differences as minor. Yet even those Republicans acknowledged that consternation is growing within a group whose members first started slowing down House business out of aggravation with multiple decisions by House Democratic leaders, including the lack of GOP amendment opportunities and the metal detectors erected outside the floor after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
“The issue with the motions to adjourn and other sort of parliamentary procedures are frustrating some members, but not enough to create some separatist movement or a coup d’etat against Andy Biggs,” a second Freedom Caucus member said in an interview.
Biggs “has other strengths,” this member said, noting that the Arizonan relates better to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) than his predecessor at the Freedom Caucus helm, former Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
Biggs’ spokesman declined to comment on the Freedom Caucus’ internal divides.
Despite a reputation burnished during the House GOP’s last years in the majority, when its members stuck together to strong-arm leadership, the Freedom Caucus isn’t always in perfect unity — nor does it whip its members. The group only takes a formal position on an issue after earning support from 80 percent of members.
Yet the Freedom Caucus’ recent schisms aren’t limited to procedural ploys: The group was not in lockstep over challenging certification of President Joe Biden’s victory, with Reps. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and Ken Buck (R-Colo.) emerging as some of the effort’s most vocal GOP critics. The group also wasn’t aligned when it came to endorsing controversial Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) last summer. Greene ultimately got invited to join the group despite some initial apprehension from some members, according to several GOP sources.
Even the group’s co-founder and most high-profile member, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), has noticeably steered clear of recent public antics by members. Jordan stayed silent when a cohort of Freedom Caucus members opposed a bill honoring the Capitol Police for protecting the building during the riot and when other members accused two Asian American lawmakers of being “racist” for demanding more representation in Biden’s Cabinet.
Those internal divisions are small-scale for now, particularly since Republicans are still in the minority. But some Freedom Caucus members are starting to raise concerns about their ability to stay united if the GOP wins back the House next year, which was key to their past success.
“We’ve got to get back to collegial operations here. Some of the rhetoric needs to die down. I’m really ready for us to work together,” the second Freedom Caucus member said. If group members’ floor delaying tactics go “on much longer,” this House Republican added, “I’ll probably share my opinion” with Freedom Caucus leaders.
Initially formed as a hard-right irritant to GOP leadership, the Freedom Caucus later became a club for Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters. In the post-Trump era, the group will face its own questions about its broader direction, especially as it gears up to elect a new leader this fall. Biggs will be term-limited by the end of this year and is also considering an Arizona Senate bid.
“There’s some real concern among the Freedom Caucus that it lacks a long-term vision,” said a senior GOP aide with knowledge of the caucus politics. “There doesn’t seem to be an organized legislative plan or agenda — only sporadic press conferences and news releases. It could be argued that this … has divided the caucus more than ever before.”
McCarthy has worked hard to make inroads with the Freedom Caucus, who once blocked his bid for the speakership. If Republicans seize back the House and McCarthy continues to lead the GOP, it’s unclear what the Freedom Caucus’s role — and relevance — will be inside the bigger conference.
Some foresee a potential schism in which Freedom Caucus rebels, such as Biggs and Greene, continue to throw bombs in an effort to torment leaders. Biggs recently clashed with McCarthy behind closed doors over his procedural gambits, suggesting the Arizona Republican has little interest in following leadership’s direction.
But others predict more Freedom Caucus members will pick their spots to challenge leadership and follow in the footsteps of Jordan, who has become more of a team player in exchange for access to McCarthy. The GOP leader gave his blessing for Jordan to serve as the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. Now Jordan says he won’t challenge McCarthy for speaker or leader, underscoring how much the icy relationship between the former rivals has defrosted.
McCarthy also sought to defend Greene, a newly anointed Freedom Caucus member, when Democrats kicked her off her committees earlier this year. But even though the Freedom Caucus’ political arm recruited Greene to run in her district, some in the group initially blanched at endorsing her candidacy, according to multiple sources. Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), a Freedom Caucus member and former pastor, even withdrew his endorsement of Greene after POLITICO uncovered a string of racist Facebook videos she made last summer.
While there was initially some concern about her joining the group, lawmakers say that dissipated when Greene apologized to the conference behind closed-doors for her inflammatory rhetoric. Despite her divisive past behavior, she has now become one of the faces of the caucus’ delay tactics, jumping at the chance to force repeated motions to adjourn and blasting her Republican colleagues who have opposed the effort.
“She caused some initial consternation amongst members, but they have since reconciled with Marjorie because of her heartfelt apologies,” said the second Freedom Caucus member.