After rocky start, GOP leaders and freshmen step up communication

After a rocky start, the relationship between House Republican leaders and the GOP freshman class has improved in recent weeks.

With any relationship, communication is key. And there has been a lot more of it since the freshmen soundly rejected leadership’s initial budget plan.

House GOP leaders have reached out to their freshmen members by participating in weekly meetings, increasing leadership opportunities for them and hosting small sessions with the historic class.

And at least one House GOP leader, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), plays basketball with them in the House gym.

McCarthy played in several games late one evening in the middle of the House’s budget debate, according to freshman Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.).

McCarthy shot hoops with Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.), Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyTop intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father Overnight Cybersecurity: Panel pushes agencies on dropping Kaspersky software | NC county won't pay ransom to hackers | Lawmakers sound alarm over ISIS 'cyber caliphate' Flynn told associate Russia sanctions would be ‘ripped up’ early in Trump presidency MORE (R-S.C.), Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDems look to use Moore against GOP McConnell: 'No change of heart' on Roy Moore US trade deficit rises on record imports from China MORE (R-Colo.), Southerland said.

The games help McCarthy, who got off to a shaky start as whip when two bills failed to clear the House earlier this year, keep his finger on the pulse of the freshmen.

For the freshmen, they can raise concerns in a social setting outside the halls of Congress. And perhaps get their frustrations out on leadership by throwing some elbows.

The leadership-freshmen relationship will be tested in the coming weeks as the GOP and the White House attempt to iron out a budget agreement. House Republicans were seen as the political victors of the 2-week stopgap measure that was signed into law by President Obama because the Democratic-led Senate wholly embraced the lower chamber’s bill.

The problem for House leaders, however, is that there are some in the GOP who believe the next battle will mimic the first. Managing the expectations of the freshmen, most notably on thwarting the new healthcare reform law, will be tricky.

The class of 2010, the largest in more than six decades, has proven to be a particularly tight-knit group that believes they have a clear mandate to shrink the size of government and encourage greater private sector job growth.

Freshman Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) told The Hill that his class has met outside their weekly set meeting time, during weeks when the House is in session. And a member of the GOP leadership team often attends those closed-door meetings.

“I think we respect one another and we respect the message the country sent by sending us to Washington. As a result, we appreciate bouncing ideas off each other, we regularly also meet with leadership and veteran legislators so there is an open dialogue,” Guinta said.

National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) and Deputy NRCC Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.) have appointed a number of freshmen to key positions atop the House GOP campaign team.

Recently, they tapped freshman Rep. Diane BlackDiane Lynn BlackRyan picks his negotiating team for tax cut bill Overnight Finance: House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama | GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 spending bill | Justices skeptical of ban on sports betting | Mulvaney won't fire official who sued him Lawmakers take to Twitter to spread the Thanksgiving cheer MORE (R-Tenn.) as NRCC Vice-Chair of Communications and appointed four freshmen as regional chairmen. They also added 12 freshmen to the 55-member NRCC Executive Committee.

In the near future, Sessions and Walden intend to meet with smaller groups and work with the GOP Conference to provide briefings on issues relevant to the class, a leadership source told The Hill.

Shortly following the elections in November, Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerJohn Feehery: A political forest fire Trump's pick for Federal Reserve chief is right choice at right time The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery MORE (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorEric Cantor: Moore ‘deserves to lose’ If we want to make immigration great again, let's make it bipartisan Top Lobbyists 2017: Hired Guns MORE (R-Va.) created two seats at the official House leadership table, and gave them three seats on the powerful GOP Steering Committee, which doles out panel assignments.

“The leaders have met with the class regularly -- at least weekly -- since taking the majority. As the Speaker and Leader said in a joint statement last November, the best kind of government is government close to the people, and no one is closer to the people than the members of our new freshman class,” BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerJohn Feehery: A political forest fire Trump's pick for Federal Reserve chief is right choice at right time The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery MORE spokesman Kevin Smith said.

Boehner met with many members of the new class when he met with them in early February to discuss their concerns about the continuing resolution (CR) that called for $32 billion in cuts.

Their message to Boehner was clear: Your plan falls short.

“We wanted to talk about the CR to make it clear to everybody that we wanted to cut $100 billion and that we wanted to be serious about sending a message. And he came to the meeting, he listened and we got a CR that’s over $100 billion,” Guinta said.

After a lengthy meeting with the class, Boehner and other GOP leaders crafted a new version of the bill that was subsequently approved by the House mostly along party lines last month. It called for $61 billion in cuts compared to 2010 spending (The $100 billion figure is a comparison to the president’s 2011 budget request, which was never enacted.)

Democrats have mocked Republican leaders for failing to control their freshmen, saying the tail is wagging the dog.

The freshmen have a different perspective, extolling Boehner’s move to revise the budget plan and allow a slew of amendments to it.

Near the end of the freewheeling debate on more than 100 amendments to that long-term government spending measure, Boehner, Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), GOP Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) and Walden held a meeting with the freshmen to outline where they had been, and where they were going with the budget.

“There’s a real positive effort underway to make sure that the new members understand, what in context has happened, and what is happening, ‘cause this is new,” Walden said.

Freshman Rep. Steve WomackStephen (Steve) Allen WomackGOP budget chair may not finish her term Jockeying begins in race for House Budget gavel Trump reopens fight on internet sales tax MORE (R-Ark.) said, “I think that this freshman class has been willing to follow leadership. There’ve been a few hiccups along the road. The effort to really go deeper into the spending on the CR, showed some division among some of the ranks, but at the end of the day, I think the freshmen are willing to follow leadership.”