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High-profile Republicans head for the exits amid House GOP dysfunction

By Melanie Zanona, Annie Grayer and Haley Talbot, CNN

(CNN) — House Republicans were shocked by some of the recent high-profile retirements announced by their colleagues, which have included powerful committee chairs and rising stars inside the GOP.

But given the miserable state of affairs inside the House right now, they also weren’t exactly surprised.

“They’ve signed up to do serious things. And we’re not doing serious things,” said Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, a conservative who is retiring after bucking his party on several key issues.

Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, a moderate who represents a key swing seat, pointed to his party’s struggle to govern as driving the departures.

“When you’re divided in your own conference, the joy of the job is harder,” Bacon told CNN. “When you have folks on your own team with their knives out, it makes it less enjoyable.”

And Rep. Carlos Gimenez of Florida, an ally of deposed former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, said this is not how he or many of his colleagues imagined life in the majority, saying, “I thought that some of our members would be smarter.”

“A lot of us are frustrated with what’s going on, and that’s just being flat-out honest,” he told CNN. “It’s foolish. And it’s been proven to be foolish. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

As the 118th Congress has been dominated by deep dysfunction and bitter divisions inside the GOP, a number of Republicans – particularly from the so-called governing wing – are heading for the exits. So far, 23 GOP lawmakers have decided to not seek reelection or resigned early, including five committee chairs, though some have cited personal reasons or are seeking higher office.

Still, the caliber and timing of some of the retirements has raised alarm bells, particularly those who are giving up coveted committee gavels that some work their whole career to achieve.

Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington is not even term-limited yet in her plum post, while China select committee Chair Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a 39-year-old who was once seen as the future of the party, recently announced he was leaving Congress after facing intense blowback for voting against impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

And on the Energy and Commerce Committee alone – a highly sought-after assignment – there are eight Republicans who are retiring.

“Those are big losses for us,” said Rep. Greg Pence of Indiana, who is among the members on the panel hanging up his voting card. “It is alarming. Especially for the institutional knowledge … So, that’s a big deal.”

The wave of retirements is rattling some of the Republicans who are choosing to stick around and fueling concern about a potential brain drain as more senior members decide to leave and take their wealth of institutional knowledge with them.

“You get this panic and anxiety like, ‘OK, who’s going to step up? Is this a normal thing that happens every few years, or is it actually abnormal?’” said Rep. August Pfluger of Texas. “So, yeah, I’m very worried about it.”

Others, however, said the turnover is completely normal, especially since the House GOP has self-imposed term limits for chairs, which they argued allows them to inject new blood into the ranks. Democrats have also seen their fair share in retirements this cycle as they have been relegated to the minority. Plus, the Republicans calling it quits so far are not from competitive districts, meaning their seats are likely safe.

“Look, it hasn’t been pleasant, there’s no question about that,” veteran Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said of the past year. “But we have a lot of great young members, and I’ve looked at a lot of the recruits coming in, and I’m not too worried.”

And Freedom Caucus Chairman Bob Good, whose rabble-rousing behavior is being partly blamed for the turbulence in the House, even seemed to relish in the departures of some of his colleagues.

“Brain drain? Why don’t you survey the country and see if there is any brain to drain in Congress. Congress has a 20% approval rating. Most of what we do to the country is bad,” Good told CNN. “I think the retirements are a wonderful thing … I have no concerns, zero concerns. We probably need a few more retirements.”

McCarthy – who resigned at the end of last year – suggested that was perhaps the goal of hard-liners like Good and GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida who voted to oust him.

“It’s unfortunate because you think of the brain trust you are losing. I blame a lot of the ‘crazy eights’ led by Gaetz. They want to make this place dysfunctional to try to wear people out,” McCarthy said, speaking to reporters in the Capitol recently. “It’s very sad … It makes it more difficult for getting people to run in the current climate.”

House Republicans wonder: ‘Is it worth it?’

This session of Congress, lawmakers have already experienced a historic 15-ballot race for speaker, the unprecedented ouster of a speaker, a rare expulsion of a member and a number of embarrassing, failed floor votes as Republican leadership has struggled to corral its paper-thin majority – all which has all contributed to members’ fatigue.

“If you’re chairman of a committee, and you’re trying to do hard legislative work, there’s frustration there. It’s just a number of things piling up,” said House Science Committee Chair Frank Lucas, reflecting on the retirements.

Rep. Mark Green of Tennessee, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, even cited the gridlock in his recent retirement announcement, saying: “Our country – and our Congress – is broken beyond most means of repair.”

Rep. Debbie Lesko of Arizona, who announced her retirement weeks after McCarthy was booted as speaker, has also pointed to the intransigence in Washington as a contributing factor.

“You give up your family, sacrifice being without your family all the time, in exchange for thinking we’re really going to accomplish something and get something done,” Lesko told CNN. “And when that doesn’t happen, you start thinking, ‘Well, is it worth it?’”

At times, the GOP infighting has been so nasty it has almost led to physical blows. And lately, Republicans can’t even seem to pass basic procedural votes, known as a rule.

“It is very dysfunctional right now,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. “You have tight margins and divided chambers, and you have a Rules Committee that’s been very dysfunctional.”

Added Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas: “We are fractured. And there is a lot of angst. And so yeah, we are I think chipping away at some of the more institutional people here.”

Underneath the chaos, there is also growing anxiety about the chances of the House GOP holding on to the majority in November, which was further compounded by Republicans losing a special election in New York – a key battleground – last week.

“We have a three-vote majority. And you know, some of our majority-maker seats are tougher with (former President Donald) Trump, and then there’s other places where it works,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota, who is leaving Congress to run for governor. “It’s gonna be a nail-biter, and we should all be ready for it.”

Meanwhile, there is also some private wariness among Republicans as Trump marches his way toward the GOP presidential nomination and they face pressure to fall in line.

“Some of them say, ‘I don’t want to have to endorse him, I don’t want to have to serve under him,’” one GOP lawmaker told CNN when asked about the retirements. “That’s something else that is weighing in a lot of the private conversations I’m having.”

Some Republicans worry the constant reshuffling can make committees less effective and risks shifting power toward lobbyists and outside groups who step in to fill the vacuum.

“I’m in my first term and I’m about to be among the most senior members of my delegation should I get reelected,” said freshman Rep. Erin Houchin of Indiana. “We have had conversations about restoring or maintaining the institutional knowledge that we know is leaving and trying to prepare for that as we are entering into a new era of the House of Representatives.”

And some of the Republicans who are retiring are seen as dealmakers who are dedicated to good governance, like Financial Services Committee Chair Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, which is fueling concern about who might be left in Congress – and who might be taking their place.

“There’s absolutely concern over a loss of knowledge, a loss of seniority, in some cases, a loss of civility,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee. “We don’t know whom we’re going to get and what the new Congress is going to look like.”

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