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Early struggles of new House Republican majority raise anxiety over high-stakes fights to come

<i>Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images</i><br/>The intense whipping effort and internal drama on a messaging bill that is dead-on-arrival in the Senate has become a recurring theme of the House GOP's first 100 days in office.
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Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images
The intense whipping effort and internal drama on a messaging bill that is dead-on-arrival in the Senate has become a recurring theme of the House GOP's first 100 days in office.

By Melanie Zanona and Annie Grayer, CNN

As House Republicans prepared to pass a parental rights bill — a signature plank of their governing agenda — GOP leaders ran into unexpected headwinds.

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, who is tasked with counting votes, began picking up on concerns from conservatives who thought the measure was federal overreach and moderates who worried about potential amendments related to transgender students.

Even Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, a member of Emmer’s whip team, informed leadership he would be voting against the bill — prompting grumbling from some senior Republicans who mused about kicking him off the whip team, according to sources familiar with the internal conversations.

And when it came time for the floor vote, a last-minute hiccup — GOP Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas accidentally voting against the bill — prompted Emmer and other leaders to swarm Nehls on the floor and urge him to change his vote, a frantic scene as the clock ticked down and the measure’s fate hung in the balance.

In the end, the bill wound up narrowly passing with five Republican defections — a margin that would have been enough to sink the legislation, had it not been for 10 Democratic absences.

“Nobody ever said it was going to be easy,” Emmer told CNN in a phone interview. “You’re dealing with a whole bunch of people with a whole bunch of personalities, different points of view. (The amendment process) is an exciting process when members are able to come to the floor with an idea to impact a piece of legislation. … It’s always a challenge though.”

Asked about Buck defying leadership on the education bill, Emmer said they are not booting him from the whip team, but he did joke about getting retribution.

“I told him instead, we’re going to add a couple people to his whip card that will give him just a little bit more work,” Emmer said.

The intense whipping effort and internal drama on a messaging bill that is dead-on-arrival in the Senate has become a recurring theme of the House GOP’s first 100 days in office. With little room for error in their razor-thin majority, Republicans have so far struggled to deliver on key priorities like the border and the budget amid their internal divisions — though they have notched some symbolic victories on energy and education, while actually succeeding in overturning a DC crime bill.

Despite the handful of successes, the party’s more vulnerable members are frustrated with how the House Republican majority has so far spent its time in power, which has also included a heavy focus on investigations and running defense for former President Donald Trump.

“I’m concerned about the kind of legislation that we’re working on, and what we’re talking about,” Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who represents a swing district, told CNN. “We just spent the last week talking about paying off porn stars, and that doesn’t get us anywhere closer to solving the inflation crisis, it doesn’t inch further to finding ways to protect women. … I’ve been very disappointed with what we’re doing right now.”

Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas, a moderate and outspoken critic of the GOP’s hardline border security bills, was even blunter: “I don’t have time to sit around all day long and drink scotch and bullsh*t about bills that have no chance of passing into law.”

Senior Republicans chalked up the early struggles to natural growing pains that come with any new majority.

“There’s always a bit of a learning curve. You have to understand, over half our members have never been in a majority,” said veteran Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the GOP leadership team. “There’s a lot of learning that goes on — then add in a divided government and a narrow majority.”

But the biggest hurdles are yet to come, with Congress gearing up to deal with must-pass items like lifting the nation’s debt ceiling and funding the government — two politically tricky issues with incredibly high stakes. And while GOP lawmakers say they are generally experiencing a honeymoon phase right now, the anxiety over the challenges ahead was palpable in interviews with over two dozen Republican members for this story.

In a sign of how difficult things could get for GOP leaders, members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus are already talking about the cudgels they have at their disposal to use in those upcoming fights — namely, the power of any single member to force a floor vote on ousting the speaker. Restoring the procedural tool, known as the “motion to vacate,” was one of the key concessions Kevin McCarthy made in his bid to become speaker.

“It hasn’t come up as far as in a serious conversation, as this needs to be enacted. But as we look at these issues … It does come up from time to time, as we game plan and we look at all of the alternatives and contingency plans that could play out over the next two years,” said freshman Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona, one of the McCarthy holdouts who ended up voting “present” on the last ballot.

‘It’s not real pretty all the time’

Lawmakers have largely attributed the House GOP’s slow start to the historic, drawn-out speaker’s battle that delayed their ability to organize committees.

But there are other reasons: House Majority Leader Steve Scalise initially promised to put 11 bills on the floor within their first two weeks in office, but leadership was forced to pull five of them — including legislation on hot-button topics like border security, law enforcement and abortion — amid resistance within their ranks.

House Republicans also promised to produce a 10-year budget, but have struggled behind the scenes to find consensus and are now discussing delaying — or even skipping — a budget in order to focus on a bill to combine hiking the debt ceiling with spending cuts.

McCarthy can only afford to lose four Republican votes on any partisan bills. And he made a number of promises to secure his speakership that have complicated his ability to govern, such as vowing a more open amendment process that allows any member to alter legislation on the floor.

While many lawmakers welcomed this addition to the legislative process, some have expressed concern that it could sink otherwise bipartisan pieces of legislation.

“I’ve got mixed feelings,” GOP Rep. Don Bacon, who represents a Biden-won district in Nebraska, told CNN. “On the positive side, it gets more people involved. They feel like they have a voice. That’s good. I think, too, though, on the downside, it’s taking some of our bills that should be more bipartisan, but through the amendment process is made more partisan.”

Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota acknowledged that the process is “not without its stumbles and it’s going to cause problems along the way,” but added: “I think we should celebrate it.”

Abolishing the House’s remote voting system, though encouraging for many who wanted the chamber to return to its pre-Covid posture, has also made attendance an issue. Emmer told CNN that even a member who recently tore his Achilles’ heel is not planning on missing any time.

Despite the challenging dynamics, Republicans have notched some real wins, including passing a resolution to block a DC crime bill that lessened penalties for certain offenses and a resolution to end the Covid-19 public health emergency.

“We’re holding tight to our commitment to America. And I know it looks a little bit dicey and it doesn’t look real fluid. … That’s democracy. I think that’s a positive thing,” said Rep. Lisa McClain of Michigan, a new member of the GOP leadership team. “It’s not real pretty all the time, but I think it’s positive.”

GOP Rep. Jennifer Kiggans, a freshman from Virgina who flipped her seat, said it is important to show what Congress looks like under Republican leadership even if the legislation is not going to pass the Senate.

“We’ve been there three months. I don’t know anybody that assumes a new position and changes things overnight. So it’s a work in progress. I think we are demonstrating what Republican leadership looks like.”

‘We haven’t gotten to the heavy lifting yet’

A number of House Republicans expressed concern that the toughest fights the party will face are still to come, from reaching a deal on the debt ceiling, to funding the government to continuing to deliver on key campaign promises.

“We haven’t gotten to the heavy lifting yet,” GOP Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, a committee chairman, told CNN.

Crane told CNN, “I’m definitely concerned about it” when asked about the pace of legislation coming to the floor.

And GOP Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas compared the first 100 days to a football scrimmage.

“In football terms, we have been in a scrimmage. We’ve basically been trying to figure out how this small majority is going to work together with differing viewpoints,” he explained. “We’re going to join the varsity now. Competition is going to get a little tougher. The issues are going to get a little harder. And the challenge to leadership is going to get a little bit more compelling. But I think that they are equal to the task.”

A number of members also voiced their concern that not enough progress has been made on crucial issues like the debt ceiling.

“What worries me is the delay,” Cole told CNN about the state of debt ceiling talks.

There’s also been some miscommunication issues. House Budget Chairman Jodey Arrington of Texas ruffled some feathers among Republicans when he told CNN that the GOP would produce a budget in May — a statement his office had to then walk back — and when he told a group of reporters that he is working on a “term sheet” of spending cuts, which McCarthy later shot down, saying: “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

Still, most House Republicans are pinning their frustrations on President Joe Biden, who they framed as unwilling to come to the negotiating table.

“I wish we had made more progress on the debt ceiling at this point,” GOP Rep. Dusty Johnson, chair of the centrist-leaning Main Street Caucus, told CNN. “We are getting very close to go time. The fact that we’re where we’re at should concern a lot of us. That is because Joe Biden refuses to come to the table.”

Kiggans told CNN, “there’s got to be less finger pointing” over the issue.

“I really disagree with standing up on the floor and making really obnoxious speeches about the other side.”

The White House has called for the debt ceiling to be raised without any conditions attached.

Beyond the debt ceiling, the conference is still stalled on a number of key pieces of legislation including a narrow border security bill that has run into fierce opposition from moderates.

The various ideological groups inside the House GOP met twice about a broader immigration and border package during the last week the House was recently in session, including one meeting involving McCarthy. The hope is to move a package through committee later this month.

But the two most vocal voices on the issue, Gonzales and Texas GOP Rep. Chip Roy, do not appear to be budging.

“I’m not going to give in, and you’re never going to out-border me,” said Gonzales, who opposes a hardline border security bill from Roy.

Meanwhile, Roy told CNN: “I’m not really worried about what [Gonzales] has to say.”

‘Therapy sessions:’ Trying to keep public disputes at bay

To help deal with the internal divisions, McCarthy tapped GOP Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana to lead negotiations on the debt ceiling and to meet at least weekly with leaders of each faction of the House GOP conference, known as the “five families,” in an effort to privately air grievances and avoid tensions from spilling into public view.

But the deputization of Graves — as opposed to someone on McCarthy’s elected leadership team, like Scalise, or Arrington, who is actually in charge of budget issues– has raised some eyebrows in GOP circles, who wonder if McCarthy is trying to create some distance from the talks or if he doesn’t feel like he can trust his other deputies.

One GOP lawmaker said Arrington is not a close ally of the speaker, which has made things more challenging for the pair.

“Jodey’s not a McCarthy guy,” the member said. “But Jodey is doing his best.”

Another Republican acknowledged that there’s long been some distrust between McCarthy and Scalise, who were once seen as potential rivals.

Arrington, in a statement, said he is focused on his mission “to stop the reckless spending that is bankrupting our country and restore fiscal sanity in Washington before it’s too late.”

And Armstrong pointed out that having Graves in charge of overseeing some of these talks makes sense from a resource perspective.

“Scalise and his team have to run the floor with a five-vote majority,” he said. “They are doing a great job, but it’s a lot.”

Graves acknowledged to CNN the significance of being tapped by leadership to take on such a pivotal role.

“Everything that I’m doing is sort of part of the speaker’s authority,” Graves told CNN. “I was not elected.”

Graves likened the meetings, which McCarthy joins at least a third of the time, to “a therapy session.”

“The best way I can describe it is a big family Thanksgiving dinner,” Armstrong, a regular meeting attendee, told CNN. “Everybody fights and is rowdy and will get into arguments but you know what? When you walk out of that Thanksgiving dinner, you better not make fun of my sister or brother at a bar or you’re going to have a problem.”

“They’re contentious, but they’re respectful,” Armstrong added.

These meetings are intended to open the lines of communication with members who normally wouldn’t engage with one another and be proactive about working out issues in order to avoid clashes on the House floor. From there, Emmer digs into the details with members who have specific sticking points. Beyond targeted meetings, Emmer said he and his team have had listening sessions with every member of the conference.

The process of bringing various groups of House Republicans together has become a fixture in the conference’s first 100 days in the majority and a hallmark of McCarthy’s leadership style. Part of that is, by necessity, since McCarthy can only lose four Republicans on any given vote.

But that process takes time, which is partly why the conference has not been able to put up some of its top priorities up for a floor vote yet.

“It’s like getting a bunch of stray cats to all come together and go in the same direction. Pretty much the same thing with congressmen,” GOP Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey said.

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