Freedom Caucus flexes muscle in Speaker's race

Freedom Caucus flexes muscle in Speaker's race
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A co-founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus has a warning for any Republican hoping to replace outgoing Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerIt's time for McConnell to fight with Trump instead of against him How Republicans can bring order out of the GOP's chaos Republican donor sues GOP for fraud over ObamaCare repeal failure MORE (R-Ohio): No one will get the promotion without our blessing.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a sharp critic of Boehner, said Friday that there are roughly 40 members of the group — and another 20 conservatives outside of it — who won't back any new Speaker who fails their litmus test for conservative purity. And the group's leadership endorsements, he warned, will be “a collective, corporate decision.”

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“We have enough votes in the House Freedom Caucus to prevent anybody from being Speaker. We will be a voting bloc,” Huelskamp said. 

“We're looking for someone who, number one, has conservative principles and actually can articulate them, but also ... follows through on John Boehner's [2011] promise … [to] open up this House and let conservatives have a shot at things,” he added. “And at the end of the day, the Democrats had more shot at amendments than conservatives. So we've gotta talk about process as well.”

Boehner's shocking announcement Friday morning set the stage for what could be a competitive race to replace him. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is thought to be the heir apparent, but others, including several members of the Freedom Caucus, aren't ruling out a challenge.

To replace Boehner, House lawmakers will vote on the floor next month, with 218 supporters required to elect the next Speaker. The Republicans, minus Boehner, hold 246 seats, meaning the winner could afford no more than 28 defections, a figure that lends the 40-member Freedom Caucus leverage. 

Democrats will be of little help; they're expected to vote near-unanimously for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).  

Asked if McCarthy is conservative enough to win the group's support, Huelskamp said, “I don't know.”

“I'm not going to pick anybody,” he added. “I'm identifying what I expect them to be able to do.”

Huelskamp laid out a clear disqualifier. Hammering Boehner for using his campaign machine to promote primary challenges against sitting Republicans, including Huelskamp, the Kansas conservative said the Freedom Caucus would oppose any Speaker candidate who was active in similar efforts. 

“John Boehner's super-PAC went after conservatives. That is never going to be forgotten,” Huelskamp said. “But there's rumors about others being involved in playing with NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee] to work against sitting members of the House. ... That will be asked, I think, of anybody who wants to be Speaker. Because conservatives are going to stick together.”

Huelskamp said it's unclear if McCarthy was ever involved in such tactics, but he suggested the Freedom Caucus will be posing the question if the majority leader seeks the gavel.

“We don't know. That's a question he's never had to answer to the group: ‘OK, tell me what you've done. Tell me if you were involved in backstabbing fellow Republicans,’ ” he said. “We want to make sure the Speaker is a Speaker for all the Republicans, not just his buddies.”

Huelskamp also suggested the Freedom Caucus would weigh congressional tenure in choosing their leadership votes. Veteran lawmakers, he suggested, need not apply.

“We can't bring in somebody who's been here 20 years. ... It needs to be somebody younger, somebody actually in the 21st century,” he said. “I mean, not offending those folks, but we need new leadership.”