GOP leaders retreat in fight with rebels

GOP leaders retreat in fight with rebels
© Francis Rivera

House GOP leaders and their allies retreated on Thursday, backing off efforts to punish conservative rebels who had bucked leadership on a trade vote.

Oversight Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzHouse Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke GOP senators decline to criticize Acosta after new Epstein charges MORE (R-Utah) said he was reinstating Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsEx-Ukraine ambassador arrives to give testimony GOP seeks to gain more control of impeachment narrative Conservative lawmakers demand Schiff's recusal from Trump impeachment inquiry MORE (R-N.C.) as a subcommittee chairman, just a week after he stripped him of his gavel for voting against leadership and failing to pay party dues.

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And hours earlier, House GOP freshmen balked at a plot to sack their class president, Rep. Ken BuckKenneth (Ken) Robert BuckThe House must act now on USMCA to build on the ecomomy's success Wave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback With budget deal, Congress again fails to hold spending in check MORE (R-Colo.), for defying leaders amid complaints he’s been ineffective at his job.

All the backpedaling was an embarrassment for GOP leaders, including Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerIs Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader MORE (R-Ohio), who just a day earlier had publicly endorsed Chaffetz’s decision to strip Meadows’s gavel. Both Meadows and Buck are members of the House Freedom Caucus, whose co-founders cheered Thursday’s developments.

“I think what it really means is that maybe our message is finally getting through some very thick skulls,” said one Freedom Caucus co-founder. “When you have a crisis in a family, you don’t exile people, kick people out. You have to communicate better as a family.”

Throughout the week, Freedom co-founders griped to Chaffetz and GOP leaders about Meadows’s removal as chairman. The message was clear: “This is not helpful.”

But it was a GOP conference rule that ultimately helped Meadows win his job back.

In order for Chaffetz to appoint a new chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations, he needed support from a majority of his committee members.

The full panel, however, is stacked with many Freedom Caucus members and their sympathizers, including the group’s chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio); co-founders Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) and Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.); Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa); Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who already experienced some of leadership’s retribution; and Buck, who was targeted by Boehner allies on Thursday.

Those members pressed Chaffetz to reinstate Meadows, threatening to block his efforts to appoint a replacement to lead the subcommittee, GOP sources said.

Chaffetz, also facing an enormous backlash from prominent conservatives like Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, waved the white flag on Thursday.

“Ultimately, I believe we both want to do what is best for the country,” Chaffetz said in a statement. “Obviously I believe in Mark Meadows or I would not have appointed him to this position in the first place. It is in the best interest of the Committee to move forward together.”

It was a remarkable reversal. Just day earlier, lawmakers and aides close to GOP leadership had estimated that 200-plus House Republicans agreed with the decisions to mete out punishment to conservatives who voted against leadership on rules votes. And several Boehner allies were urging him to be more aggressive in putting down conservative rebellions in the conference.

But Thursday’s action suggested those estimates may be grossly inflated.

“There are people who are not members of the Freedom Caucus who are standing with us and they understand why we're frustrated, and what they want is principled leadership in Washington, and what Speaker Boehner exhibited this week was not principled leadership,” said a second Freedom Caucus leader.

“He’s only listening to a small group of people who are very vocal around him, who don’t reflect the values of the constituents of the Republican Party.”

It's unclear what Thursday's decision will mean for future political retribution. Speaking to reporters, Boehner only focused on downplaying the divisions within the party.

“Like any family, we have little squabbles from time to time. And we're in the middle of one as we speak,” the Speaker said. “And I'm confident that we'll resolve our differences and move on.”

Chaffetz, who’s held the Oversight gavel for just six months, had briefed leadership on his decisions to both boot Meadows from the chairman’s slot and to reinstate him a week later. But GOP leaders emphasized those decisions were solely the prerogative of the chairman.

“We support the action of Chaffetz to run the committee,” Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told The Hill. “Jason believes he has a better understanding, Meadows believes he has a better understanding, I support the chairman on his running of the committee.”

Earlier Thursday morning, Boehner allies had been set to oust Buck as freshman class president. A number of freshmen were generally unhappy with his leadership, and his vote against the trade rule gave opponents the opening they needed to remove him.

Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.), the freshman liaison to leadership, and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), another Boehner ally, emailed freshman offices about the emergency meeting on “the direction of future leadership.”

But Buck didn’t go quietly. He took to Twitter, where he vowed to fight: “The GOP Leadership is meeting in secret in an attempt to remove me as Freshman Class President. Bring it on.”

Like Meadows, Buck instantly became a darling of conservatives. And his campaign raised funds off the controversy.

But inside the closed-door meeting, some fellow frosh sharply criticized him for making a “media circus" of the whole affair.

Opponents insisted they had the votes to oust him on the spot, and Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Nev.) had been telling colleagues he was interested in the job, sources said.

However, political foes agreed to put off a vote after Buck allies “asked for time and to give everyone a chance to cool down,” said a source in the room.

“He probably assumed he was going down but people were willing to give him a second chance,” the freshman source said. “The people who spoke for him took the strategy of asking for more time for people to calm down and understand one another's concerns.”

Though congressional Republicans scored a major victory by passing important fast-track trade legislation, this week was also dominated by dozens of stories about nasty GOP infighting.

Conservative lawmakers took personal shots at Chaffetz. Senior GOP aides accused Meadows of reneging on a promise to back Boehner as Speaker, prompting Meadows to angrily call it a “bold-faced lie.”

Yet there wasn’t much talk this week of another coup attempt against Boehner. And Thursday’s events suggest a more measured approach in responding to retribution from leaders can be successful, Freedom Caucus leaders said. 

“If [Boehner] plays a really heavy hand, there are those who’ve asked, ‘What is this, Stalingrad?’ You don’t do what the Politburo tells you to do, you’re out on your ear? That’s not America,” said one caucus leader.

“I think we’ve been very measured in our response.”