House Freedom Caucus flexes muscle in Speaker's race

House Freedom Caucus flexes muscle in Speaker's race
© Greg Nash

Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTop GOP Judiciary rep: 'At this point the president has been proved right' about no collusion Trump, Congress brace for Mueller findings Jim Jordan on Mueller probe: 'Distraction is finally over' MORE’s (R-Ohio) consideration of a leadership bid is throwing a wrench into the race to the replace Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFormer Dem candidate says he faced cultural barriers on the campaign trail because he is working-class Former House candidate and ex-ironworker says there is 'buyer's remorse' for Trump in Midwest Head of top hedge fund association to step down MORE (R-Wis.), underscoring how much power the House Freedom Caucus will have in the process.

The band of roughly 30 conservative hard-liners was already poised to be in a strong position to make demands in exchange for their support for the next Speaker if Republicans hang on to the majority after this fall's midterm elections — or if they decide to anoint a new leader before November.

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But if the caucus threatens to throw their weight behind one of their own long-shot candidates, like Jordan, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, that could give the group an even bigger bargaining chip in the fight.

“Jordan has no shot at getting elected Speaker but he could be a spoiler and he could be a kingmaker,” said one GOP lawmaker close to the current leadership team. The Freedom Caucus “could ask for committee chairmanships. They could ask for more Steering Committee representation. They could ask [House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse leaders need to modernize Congress for the sake of America Overnight Energy: McConnell tees up vote on Green New Deal | Centrist Dems pitch alternative to plan | House Republican likens Green New Deal to genocide | Coca-Cola reveals it uses 3M tons of plastic every year House GOP lawmaker says Green New Deal is like genocide MORE] to support them for another leadership spot.”

Ryan on Friday officially endorsed McCarthy (R-Calif.) to succeed him as Speaker, giving the No. 2 Republican a major boost and potentially heading off a nasty leadership battle heading into the midterms. 

But McCarthy would still need to lock up 218 votes to win the gavel, and the Freedom Caucus represents a powerful voting bloc in the GOP conference. 

Some members of the group appear to be relishing their potential power, saying a protracted leadership race would allow even more time for potential candidates to court their support.

“I think we’ll play a tremendous role,” said Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashProperty is a fundamental right that is now being threatened GOP lawmaker tells party to 'do better' after O'Rourke St. Patrick's Day post The 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration MORE (R-Mich.), a member of the Freedom Caucus. “We have over three dozen members, and that’s enough to make a huge impact.” 

“I’m going to go over to the Capitol Hill Club tonight to see if I can get a free dinner,” quipped Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieThe 25 Republicans who defied Trump on emergency declaration Trump: I told Republicans to vote for 'transparency' in releasing Mueller report House votes for Mueller report to be made public MORE (R-Ky.), a Jordan ally who is often aligned with the Freedom Caucus.

Speculation over whether Ryan will be pressured to step down from his leadership role has started to mount despite the Wisconsin Republican's assertion he plans to remain Speaker through January.

While the Freedom Caucus hasn't called on Ryan to relinquish the gavel, the timing of the news of Jordan's potential bid comes as a small band of Republicans have begun to call for leadership elections to be held ahead of the midterms. Should Republicans lose the majority, the powerful conservative group's influence over leadership elections would likely wane. 

The Freedom Caucus huddled Friday morning to hash out their strategy in the leadership race and discussed the idea of putting up their own candidate. That could give them more leverage to extract promises from other colleagues vying for the gavel.

Jordan, who has a reputation for being a thorn in leadership’s side, confirmed that he is interested in seeking the position and that conservative lawmakers are pushing him to run, though he emphasized that Ryan still holds the Speaker’s gavel. 

"Colleagues have encouraged me to consider it and I'm open to that,” Jordan, 54, told reporters Friday.

While it’s unlikely the six-term Ohio Republican could garner the 218 votes needed to become Speaker, he could play a pivotal role in determining who ultimately wins the race.

If Jordan opts to throw his hat into the ring, it could potentially draw conservative votes away from the probable front-runners and step up the likelihood that candidates would seek to cut a deal with the group. 

Freedom Caucus members stressed that it's early in the process and they are still figuring out what they want from the next Speaker.

“We want to lay out a set of principles that any Speaker has to follow, then you duck all this personality and horse-race stuff,” said Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.). “We’re just starting to think it through.”

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsConservatives wage assault on Mueller report Trump, Congress brace for Mueller findings CNN's Toobin: 'Swirl of suspicion' about more indictments not justified MORE (R-N.C.) said neither McCarthy or House Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseWhy do so many Democrats embrace hate speech? Conservatives wage assault on Mueller report Meadows says Mueller's end proves 'no collusion' MORE (R-La.), the two early front-runners for the Speaker’s gavel, have approached him yet about cutting a deal.

But the prospect of Freedom Caucus members receiving a role in leadership or better committee placements — including on the powerful Republican Steering Committee, which elects chairmanships — could be a key factor in the powerful conservative group’s ultimate decision on which contender it will support.

"I mean obviously that's a consideration that a number of Freedom Caucus would like to see, but there's not really a race for Speaker right now,” Meadows told reporters Friday. “But even with that, it would be way premature to say we'll give you this or that for votes.”

The dynamic is a repeat of 2015, the last time McCarthy ran for Speaker. Freedom Caucus leaders attempted to cut a deal with him, promising to back him for the top job if he pledged support for one of their own conservative members to become majority leader.

“McCarthy couldn’t deliver that,” said the GOP lawmaker close to leadership. “They were asking for something he couldn’t deliver. But the truth is they’ve got the votes to ask for something significant.” 

Meadows said none of the potential contenders currently have enough support to secure the gavel, noting that the Freedom Caucus has the ability to prevent any hopeful from locking down the votes needed to win.

"I know that there is no one who can get 218 right now,” he said. “Because I know how many votes were just pledged to me a few minutes ago … there's more than 23 people willing to vote as a bloc."

Even before Ryan’s formal retirement announcement on Wednesday, McCarthy had been attempting to make inroads with the Freedom Caucus. Meadows hinted that the Speaker’s race has come up in conversations on the House floor earlier this year. 

Some Republicans have observed that McCarthy has been spending more time with Freedom Caucus members in the back of the House chamber during votes. And one Republican said McCarthy has even been sending birthday cards to some members. 

“He’s been reaching out, trying to keep his promises to a number of members of the House Freedom Caucus. That will serve him well in whatever race, should he throw his hat into the ring,” Meadows said earlier this week. 

This isn’t the first time Jordan has considered launching a long-shot bid for the most powerful position in the House.

Ahead of the 2016 elections, he contemplated challenging Ryan after receiving encouragement from conservative activists frustrated with the Speaker’s rocky relationship with then-GOP presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHow to stand out in the crowd: Kirsten Gillibrand needs to find her niche Countdown clock is on for Mueller conclusions Omar: White supremacist attacks are rising because Trump publicly says 'Islam hates us' MORE. Jordan opted against it after Trump won the election, ultimately throwing his support behind Ryan to remain in his position. 

While the Freedom Caucus has developed a reputation for antagonizing leadership — in part because their attempt to oust former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner says it's Democrats' turn for a Tea Party movement House Republicans find silver lining in minority Alaskan becomes longest serving Republican in House history MORE (R-Ohio) played a key part in his retirement — Meadows insisted that floating Jordan’s name for Speaker isn’t an attempt to push McCarthy or Scalise out of the race. 

Amash pushed back on the notion that Jordan’s potential Speaker’s bid was simply a strategy designed to gain more leverage in the leadership fight. Jordan is widely popular among conservatives, leading the calls this year to appoint a second special counsel to investigate allegations of bias at the FBI and Justice Department.

“I absolutely support Jim Jordan. This is not about deals. We’ve seen how the current leadership team operates,” Amash said. “You have to totally change the order around here. It means a whole new group of people who are actually running the House that reflects the will of the people.” 

“If you are going to change things, you’re going to have something of a revolution here,” he added. 

Scott Wong contributed.