Centrists struggle to influence House Republican elections

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House GOP centrists are struggling to exert influence in this week’s leadership elections amid frustration with hardliners in their conference.

The Tuesday Group, which is comprised of center-right Republicans, met with leadership candidates on Wednesday, but hasn’t decided if it will even offer endorsements — or vote as a bloc for a particular candidate.

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That’s precisely what the conservative House Freedom Caucus has suggested it could do during Thursday’s elections. Its members are pledging to vote as a bloc so that the 40 or so lawmakers in the group can exert the most influence.

Centrists are frustrated that they might not have the influence of the conservative group.

“We want to be way more effective than we’ve been. We realize that,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a member of the Tuesday Group.

Members of the House GOP’s moderate wing have proven they can make an impact when they band together.

In January, GOP leaders scrapped a vote on an abortion bill because centrists and Republican women objected to a provision regarding restrictions for rape exceptions.

Still, the group’s members see themselves more often as working with leaders. Kinzinger said the group is unique in that while members have different ideas, they want to govern. He contrasted that view with the Freedom Caucus.

“We all don’t have the same goals and we all want to govern at the end of the day,” he said of the Tuesday Group. “And with the Freedom Caucus, I think you have 25 to 40 members who are willing to take the place down.”

The Tuesday Group met multiple times this past week to discuss their options. That included a two-and-a-half hour session on Wednesday in which the group met individually with each of the candidates for majority leader and whip.

While they may not offer a formal group endorsement, most centrists expect they’ll end up voting the same way.

Many are leaning toward House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) over House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) for majority leader. That post would open up if current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) succeeds the retiring John Boehner (R-Ohio) as Speaker.

Kinzinger, an Iraq War veteran, cited concerns with the original budget Price authored earlier this year that offset defense spending. Following an outcry from defense hawks like Kinzinger, the House eventually approved a budget that added more than $90 billion to an off-the-books war fund.

“I think he’s open to including us in discussions about budgets, spending, things like that,” Kinzinger said of Scalise. “And for me, one of the most important things is the defense sequester. And I think he’s shown a willingness to talk about that.”

Another key factor for Tuesday Group types is how leadership candidates voted on the stopgap spending bill the House approved on Wednesday. The measure, which runs through Dec. 11, prevented a government shutdown. Only 91 House Republicans voted for it, including many members of the Tuesday Group and centrist Main Street Partnership, while 151 House Republicans voted no.

Scalise voted for the measure, along with McCarthy and chief deputy whip Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.). But Price and two other whip candidates, Reps. Pete Sessions (Texas) and Dennis Ross (Fla.), opposed it.

Wednesday’s vote was just the most recent case in which more than half of the House Republican conference voted against legislation seen as must-pass by GOP leaders.

Only 28 House Republicans voted for the last debt limit increase in February, 2014; 87 voted to end the October 2013 shutdown compared to 144 who didn’t; and 75 voted to fund the Department of Homeland Security in March over 167 members who opposed the measure. 

Right-of-center lawmakers are frustrated that they repeatedly supply leadership with necessary votes for must-pass bills like keeping the government open and raising the debt limit, yet feel sidelined when leaders spend time trying to appease hardliners and insinuate rank-and-file members should follow.

When asked if they feel like they’re taken for granted to help with tough votes, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) replied with a raised voice: “Absolutely!”

“I think a lot of our members are very concerned about the ‘Vote no, hope yes’ caucus,” said Dent, a Tuesday Group co-chairman. “I think that’s getting a little bit old and tiring.”

Dent said members of the Tuesday Group want the new members of leadership to be willing to walk the plank, warning that the spending bill this week was the “easy vote” ahead of grueling votes on a budget deal and debt limit hike this fall.

“We’re the governing wing of the party and we want to make sure the leaders have an affirmative sense of governance,” Dent said.