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Looking back at a decade of GOP hard-liners in Congress

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On paper, speaker of the House is a great job. You get to set the legislative agenda. You are second in line for the presidency. You get to whack a big gavel. In reality, well, here's how former Republican Speaker John Boehner put it in his memoir.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "ON THE HOUSE")

JOHN BOEHNER: (Reading) I was living in crazy town now. And when I took the speaker's gavel in 2011, I became its mayor.

KELLY: For the past decade or so, a faction of hard-right conservatives have made life very unpleasant for Republican speakers. That group is now organized as the Freedom Caucus. And today, some of its members are working hard to put a stop to Kevin McCarthy's bid for the job. Well, to understand how such a small group of legislators came to have such big influence, I'm joined by Paul Kane, senior congressional correspondent and columnist for The Washington Post, and he joins us from the Capitol. Hey there, Paul.

PAUL KANE: Hey, Mary Louise. How are you?

KELLY: I am doing all right. Thanks. So if I were to ask you - just describe this group that is set on sinking McCarthy's speaker hopes. What would you tell me?

KANE: They are the sort of latest outgrowth of just a hard-right faction of House Republicans that really came to the forefront in 2009 and 2010, as the Tea Party started to sort of brew in response to the Wall Street bailout and other big government spending programs. And they've evolved and evolved. By 2015, they created something called the House Freedom Caucus, but this is sort of the latest iteration. A lot of these folks that are now McCarthy's biggest antagonists have only been around a couple terms. Some of them are actually, you know, freshmen-elect who have never even taken the oath of office.

KELLY: And can't until...

KANE: They're the...

KELLY: ...The speaker is elected - there's another leader.

KANE: Yes.

KELLY: Yeah.

KANE: Yes. And they're really taking the idea of tactical warfare for the sake of warfare. There's really not a whole lot of policy positions that they're advocating. It's more like blowing stuff up just so you can blow stuff up.

KELLY: Well, and you said they have evolved and evolved over the decade or so that this group has been around. I mean, how straight a line would you draw between the Tea Party in 2013 and the Freedom Caucus today?

KANE: There's definitely a straight line, with a few zigs and zags along the way. But, you know, like, Jim Jordan was a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus. But the longer he was there, the more Jordan sort of realized that he was more and more senior. And wow, he could become the top Republican on a committee, like House Oversight and then House Judiciary. That means he needs actual people in power who are - become speakers. And so now these other folks, who are leading this current fight against Jim Jordan, who is - Jordan is being a big backer of McCarthy.

KELLY: Yeah.

KANE: These are the younger, newer folks who don't have these plum gavels to become chairs. So they're the ones who are taking up this fight now.

KELLY: So to what seems to be the central question - how such a small group has so much sway over the larger party. Does it boil down to that, in a Congress like we have right now, where the margin is so thin, it only takes a very small number of people to hold the rest of the party hostage?

KANE: Yeah. When you have a majority with 222, which is what they - Republicans currently have, you only have four votes to spare if you're trying to do something on a party line. There was a belief that Republicans were going to win 20, 30, 40 seats in a big red wave, and they were going to have this enormous majority. But because they were so unsuccessful - McCarthy and Republicans in so many districts - they only picked up nine seats overall, which got them to 222. And boy, they only have four votes to spare. All of a sudden, these outliers - these renegades - realized, wow, we are relevant. We are more relevant now than we have been since the - they're more relevant now than they were when Boehner was speaker.

KELLY: You're making me wonder why Kevin McCarthy or, indeed, anyone would want the speaker's job.

KANE: You know, I think McCarthy has just fallen for this lure of wanting to win for the sake of winning. I think he just has been in leadership so long that he just thinks, well, I'm supposed to be speaker. You know, I started out as chief deputy whip, and then I became majority whip. And then I became majority leader, and then I became minority leader. It's like he wants to do it just because he thinks he's supposed to do it.

KELLY: Last question - just to step back, to broaden this out, because this is bigger than the speaker's job. One way or the other, they'll presumably, at some point, figure out who's going to be speaker. But you're reminding me of an interview I did earlier this week with Brendan Buck, a communications strategist who worked for John Boehner and Paul Ryan when they were speakers. And he had real concern that, wherever this lands, it does not bode well for Republicans' ability to run the House efficiently and get anything done at all going forward. Do you share that concern?

KANE: Brendan is a very smart, smart man and who knows the House very well. You know, the vote for the House speaker is supposed to basically be the easiest vote of the two-year Congress. If it's this big of a trouble to elect a speaker, what happens when there's a really big, important vote, policy-wise, that is coming down the pike?

KELLY: Paul Kane, senior congressional correspondent and columnist for The Washington Post. Thank you.

KANE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.