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Cheney battle raises questions about House GOP's future

The fiery clash this week in the House between Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyPressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win Trump: Liz Cheney's election remarks sparked by push to bring US troops home Biden's lead over Trump surpasses 6M votes as more ballots are tallied MORE (R-Wyo.) and a group of conservative lawmakers has triggered a broader conversation among GOP members about the future path of the party and Cheney’s own political career.

Cheney, a scion who rose to be the No. 3 House Republican by her second term in the House, found herself on the receiving end of attacks about her leadership style and loyalty to President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE at a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday.

Members who witnessed the clash described it as a “coordinated attack” led by Reps. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzFlorida passes 850k coronavirus cases Florida GOP Rep. Mike Waltz tests positive for COVID-19 Gaetz says he has coronavirus antibodies MORE (R-Fla.), Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieCheney seeks to cool tensions with House conservatives House in near-unanimous vote affirms peaceful transfer of power Ron Paul hospitalized in Texas MORE (R-Ky.) and a handful of House Freedom Caucus members.

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They criticized Cheney for donating to Massie’s primary opponent, past criticisms of Trump’s policies and support of Anthony FauciAnthony FauciBiden says staff has spoken with Fauci: 'He's been very, very helpful' Jake Tapper jokes he's retained Giuliani to look into fraud in 'Sexiest Man' election 24 percent of New Yorkers unlikely to get COVID-19 vaccine: poll MORE, the government’s leading infectious disease expert.

The lawmakers argue Cheney’s response was antagonistic and led others to join the criticisms of the third-ranking GOP leader.

The Hill spoke to 20 House Republican lawmakers about the internal conversation. The voices differ over what will come next, with some describing it as a momentary spurt of bad blood and others saying it will be difficult for Cheney, who has been seen as a potential future GOP Speaker, to rise higher in the conference.

“She did irreparable damage to her career in the House by the way she handled that,” one senior Republican source told The Hill. “In all my years in Congress, it was the most intensive since the John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerPrinciples to unify America Feehery: A possible House Speaker conundrum for Democrats Obama on bipartisanship: 'There is a way to reach out and not be a sap' MORE days.”

Others dismissed such arguments.

“A calculated political hit job in one conference meeting does not destroy a person’s career,” Rep. Patrick McHenryPatrick Timothy McHenryMaxine Waters says Biden win is 'dawn of a new progressive America' McCarthy: 'I would think I already have the votes' to remain as House GOP leader Ex-RNC, Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy charged in covert lobbying scheme MORE (R-N.C.) said. “What happened in that conference was a representation of the mood of Republican members generally, that there is angst.” 

Still, members say the confrontation has a broader meaning in terms of the 2020 presidential race and in future leadership races as the GOP worries about November. Trump is down in the polls to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Biden says staff has spoken with Fauci: 'He's been very, very helpful' MORE, and while they aren’t talking about it publicly, Republicans are worried they could lose the Senate and White House this fall as well as remain in the minority in the House.

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Some GOP lawmakers viewed Cheney’s growing criticism of the president as a sign she’s trying to distinguish herself from both Trump and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyRichmond says GOP 'reluctant to stand up and tell the emperor he wears no clothes' Sunday shows preview: Biden transition, COVID-19 spike in spotlight Drastic cuts proposed to Medicare would hurt health care quality MORE (R-Calif.), who some argue has tied himself too closely to the president.

But Cheney has dismissed allegations she isn’t supportive enough of the president and that her disagreements with his policies derail GOP messaging efforts.

“It's no secret at all that I've got some foreign policy differences with the president,” Cheney told The Hill on Thursday. “We have a variety of differences within our conference and I think that makes us strong. And I look forward to making sure that we do whatever we can to get the majority back.”

Other lawmakers said Cheney has been clear in charting a path apart from Trump.

“Liz has decided to carve out her own path in an attempt to define Republican Party post-Trump,” one GOP lawmaker said. “She believes McCarthy and Scalise become ‘lame duck’ leaders if we fail to secure the majority [and that they] could be pushed out,” the source added, referring to House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseRichmond says GOP 'reluctant to stand up and tell the emperor he wears no clothes' New RSC chairman sees 'Trumpism' as future Cheney seeks to cool tensions with House conservatives MORE (R-La.).

Trump publicly criticized Cheney after the Tuesday blowout.

“Liz Cheney is only upset because I have been actively getting our great and beautiful Country out of the ridiculous and costly Endless Wars,” Trump tweeted Thursday, referencing former Vice President Dick Cheney’s backing of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Afghanistan has been a significant dispute between Trump and the Cheneys, along with other foreign policy matters.

Trump also retweeted Gaetz’s public call on Twitter for her to step down or be removed from leadership.

Following the attacks on Twitter, McCarthy came to Cheney’s defense, telling reporters there is “absolutely no question” that Cheney should remain in leadership. 

Some lawmakers say Cheney would face various problems if she ever challenged McCarthy.

These critics say that she rubs some members the wrong way by coming off as arrogant or entitled. McCarthy, in contrast, glad-hands and seeks to win over members with a charm offensive.

But sources close to Cheney deny that she has any plan to challenge McCarthy.

They noted how Cheney in January voiced her support to "make Kevin McCarthy the next Speaker of the House," right as she announced to her colleagues that she would not run for the Senate, chalking up these remarks as proof that she is not motivated to challenge McCarthy.

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“Liz and Kevin are friends and they both respect each other,” one source close to Cheney said. “Anyone trying to pit them against one another is baselessly trying to stir the pot.”

Another elephant in the room is fundraising. 

McCarthy is a prolific fundraiser for his colleagues, which could help him survive if November does go poorly for Republicans.

Since 2019, McCarthy has given the House GOP’s campaign arm more than $27 million in fundraising, followed by Scalise who has transferred $9.37 million. Cheney has trailed far behind, sending roughly $1.5 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).  

One source close to Cheney, when pressed about the difference in these numbers, said in addition to contributing to the NRCC, she focused her time and attention on doing events and donating to individual campaigns.

Another huge factor is gender.

Cheney is one of 13 women in the House GOP conference and is the highest-ranking woman in GOP leadership. This makes it unlikely she would be pushed out of leadership, despite statements this week by Goetz.

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“No one has enough courage to push out the only woman in leadership,” added another senior Republican. “They are trying to cut her legs out and weaken her from moving up.”

Multiple conservatives also say that there aren’t any active recruitment efforts to find someone to challenge her during next year’s leadership races. These voices say Cheney retains support from a large portion of the conference. 

Some members huffed at what they viewed as hypocrisy from the far-right flank who took part in the conference criticism, but have also previously voiced opposition to the president’s policies or controversial remarks.

They also balked at the idea that Cheney should somehow quiet her opinion, saying she is committed to her foreign policy beliefs and is not suddenly using them as part of a political scheme.

“We’ve always had this tension in our party, going back to the late 40s, early 50s between a more isolationist view and a more international hawkish view,” said Rep. Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherReestablishing American prosperity by investing in the 'Badger Belt' Actors union blasts Democrat for criticizing GOP lawmaker's wife Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats MORE (R-Wis.), who came to Cheney’s defense.

The Freedom Caucus has a known reputation for being a thorn in leadership’s side, particularly when they are in the majority. In 2015, they successfully ousted BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerPrinciples to unify America Feehery: A possible House Speaker conundrum for Democrats Obama on bipartisanship: 'There is a way to reach out and not be a sap' MORE.

Some sources argued that time and political circumstances may bridge the divide, pointing to McCarthy’s improved relations with the Freedom Caucus over the past two years.

“I don't think [moving up in leadership is unattainable],” said one GOP lawmaker. “She's obviously got to repair some of the damage done with certain members.”