Over the past decade, the United States has gone through a series of standoffs over the federal budget and the debt limit with an ever-changing cast of characters. Starting from the original 2011 version, starring Barack Obama as the beleaguered Democratic president and John Boehner as the embattled Republican speaker of the House, these fights have become a feature of American politics. The cast changes, as do some plot details, but, like the Fast & Furious franchise, the same basic formula remains.
This year is the reboot with a new set of main protagonists. Joe Biden is in the role of the beleaguered Democratic president and Kevin McCarthy is the embattled Republican speaker of the House. But while casual viewers may think other elements of the story have remained otherwise stable, they haven’t. After all, this is Washington, not Hollywood, and the various events that have shaped the underlying political dynamics over the past few years could not be scripted in any writers room — like McCarthy’s 15-ballot battle to become speaker, let alone the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. McCarthy is now trying to steer House Republicans toward a deal with a narrow five-vote majority and a deeply factionalized conference that in some ways bears a greater resemblance to a parliamentary coalition than the type of solid majorities that speakers traditionally command.
One of the ways in which McCarthy manages his fractious coalition is through meetings of what has come to be referred to on Capitol Hill as “the five families,” a reference to the Mafia clans that once dominated organized crime in metro New York. Every week, the leaders of five factions within the Republican conference meet in McCarthy’s office to hash out upcoming issues. They are Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) of the Problem Solvers Caucus, Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) of the Republican Governance Group, Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD) of the Republican Main Street Caucus, Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK) of the Republican Study Committee, and Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) of the House Freedom Caucus. Yet while the five families comparison is an easy shorthand, it’s simplistic to view all the groups as having similar power, let alone being that easy to distinguish from each other.
First, the lines between the groups blur very easily. Taken broadly in order from left to right:
- The Problem Solvers Caucus is a bipartisan group backed by the centrist lobby No Labels that is mostly moderates.
- The Republican Governance Group is the descendant of a group of liberal and moderate Republicans that formed in reaction to Newt Gingrich’s takeover in 1994.
- The Republican Main Street Caucus represents “pragmatic conservatives” and includes both relative moderates and party-line Republicans.
- The Republican Study Committee, which was once a group of hardcore conservatives, now encompasses the vast majority of the conference.
- Finally, the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) has become the new factional stronghold of the hard right.
Second, the power dynamics have greatly changed in the past decade. Under Boehner, Republicans had a comfortable majority and the Freedom Caucus members were the troublemakers lobbing bombs from the sidelines and helping to push the US to the precipice of default. In contrast, the HFC is now a key part of McCarthy’s coalition; they were instrumental in helping deliver him the speaker’s gavel. HFC member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) has gone from one of the leading bomb-throwers to a committee chair and key McCarthy ally. McCarthy still faces skepticism from the hard right. After all, members like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Lauren Boebert (R-CO) held out until the end against him in the speaker’s election. But there is now real buy-in for McCarthy’s agenda from a right-wing faction of the GOP, which was outside the tent in the past. In April, this alliance was on display when McCarthy successfully passed his opening debt limit offer, when a number of Republicans voted to raise the debt limit for the first time in their congressional careers.
Assuming McCarthy and Biden can reach some sort of deal in the coming weeks on how to deal with the debt limit, it will require at least some support from all of the factions within the House Republican Conference. It also will require some Democratic votes — after all, even McCarthy’s maximalist offer only passed by one vote with the last-minute intervention of Rep. George Santos (R-NY), who is currently under federal indictment.
But relying on some Democratic votes doesn’t necessarily doom McCarthy’s speakership — after the debacle of McCarthy’s 15-ballot speakership election in January, Republicans are not eager for a repeat. Instead, it divides the House into three groups that are not necessarily ideological in the short term. The first is those who will vote “yes” for whatever deal McCarthy reaches: These include moderates, members of leadership, and those who are McCarthy loyalists. The second are those who will vote “no” no matter what. This is at most a handful of members aligned with HFC who, for political or personal reasons, simply will not support any deal.
It’s the group in the middle that matters. These are the members who in situations like this often “vote no but hope yes.” They support a broader deal but don’t want to take the political risks to support it. After all, while nearly 150 House members voted not to certify the 2020 presidential election, it’s not as though many of them genuinely thought Hugo Chavez had risen from the dead to plot with Dominion Voting Systems to steal the presidency. They simply knew the election would be certified regardless of how they voted and didn’t want to risk the potential wrath of the MAGA right. The more of these members McCarthy can rally, the better a deal he can reach. The less he has to rely on Democratic votes, the more he can bargain for with the White House.
Any deal may still be elusive. But if one is reached, the key group is not moderates, nor the hard right. Instead, it’s the backbench conservatives who don’t want to risk default but don’t want to risk a primary challenge either. At this point, they have a symbiotic relationship with McCarthy. The more they back him, the more he can extract from Biden and vice versa. The question is just how many McCarthy can win over if he and Biden come to terms.