Democracia y PolíticaEconomía

The Sound and Fury of the House Freedom Caucus

To raise the debt ceiling, Kevin McCarthy had to defy the Republican Party’s most conservative members. Will he pay a price?

A photo of Kevin McCarthy speaking with the press in the United States Capitol building.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has often found himself at odds with the members of his own party’s House Freedom Caucus.Photograph by Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call / Getty 


A few weeks before the 2010 midterm elections, when pollsters from both parties were uniformly predicting a Republican rout, an article appeared on the right-wing Web site RedState with the title “It’s Time to Make GOP Leadership Less Powerful.” Its author, Russell Vought, was a thirty-four-year-old budget wonk who had previously worked as a House aide for Mike Pence, then the Conference chair. “I learned a lot from being on the inside,” he told me recently. In his view, the top Republicans in the House, starting with the Speaker, were primarily interested in preserving their own power, and they “distracted” conservative members from pursuing more explosive ideological fights. Vought left the House disenchanted, in the summer of 2010, taking a job with Heritage Action, an advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation. “If you are a conservative,” he wrote in his RedState article, “you want checks in the system to ensure that conservative back benchers . . . have enough road blocks to put up when Leadership is going off the rails of principle.”

The following year, after Republicans picked up sixty-three House seats in the midterms, an insurgent wing of the G.O.P. refused to raise the debt ceiling, in order to pressure the Obama Administration to cut the federal budget. To avoid a catastrophic default, the Speaker, John Boehner, made a deal with the White House, and cobbled together a majority by trading conservative Republican votes for moderate Democratic ones. To the conservatives, this was an unforgivable deceit. In 2015, they retaliated against Boehner, who eventually retired, and, in the process, created the House Freedom Caucus, a group of ideologues and extremists who made it their mission to antagonize Party leadership.

Last November, when Republicans took back the House but fell short of the landslide they were expected to win in the midterms, Vought saw a historic opportunity. “The House Freedom Caucus was made for this moment,” he tweeted, a day after the election. “They have the numbers to insist on a paradigm shifting, conservative speaker.” He added, “They must not fail.”

A lot had changed since Vought wrote his RedState warning in 2010. He is currently the president of the Center for Renewing America, a far-right group operating under the aegis of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a well-funded network that many in Washington regard as a kind of Trump Administration in exile; its main affiliate is America First Legal, an advocacy organization founded by Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s senior adviser. The former Trump Administration officials at the Center for Renewing America include Jeffrey Clark, who tried to overturn the 2020 election from inside the Justice Department; Ken Cuccinelli, an incendiary former Homeland Security official; and Kash Patel, a political appointee at the Department of Defense whose bio touts his pending lawsuits against the Times, CNN, and Politico “for defamation.”

In the Trump White House, Vought ran the Office of Management and Budget—first as deputy director, then as its head. During the past six months, he has advised House conservatives in the intensifying showdown over the debt ceiling. “Russ is the guy conservatives go to for intimate knowledge of how the federal budget works,” Newt Gingrich told the Washington Post. “He understands an enormous amount of federal budgeting, and that makes him a very big player.”

Vought, who is forty-seven, bald, bearded, and bespectacled, considers himself a “budgeteer” with a special bent. Working for Trump taught him the value of combining esoteric debates over budget policy with the pyrotechnics of the culture wars. He calls his primary enemy “the woke and weaponized regime.” He’ll tell you, for instance, that the Department of Education should really be called the Department of Critical Race Theory. “You’re going to get called names—bigot, racist, appeaser, nationalist,” he said. “You have to just plow through them and win the debate. You will win the debate on cultural issues.”

Each of the negotiators in the debt-ceiling standoff has a different narrative about when the drama began. Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker, claims he started pushing Joe Biden to discuss the issue in February. Biden, who at first refused to negotiate under the threat of a default, saw little reason to discuss anything until the House passed a bill outlining its budget priorities in late April. Vought’s time line goes back to the days right after the midterms, when McCarthy was campaigning to become Speaker. Initially, twenty members of the Freedom Caucus withheld support for McCarthy’s candidacy. From Vought’s perch at the Center for Renewing America, he encouraged them to hold out. At the time, hcalled McCarthy “a peace-time leader when we are in a cold civil war who will manage the GOP away from conflict instead of seizing it by the throat.”

McCarthy had every reason to be wary of the Freedom Caucus: when he ran to replace Boehner as Speaker, in 2015, its members blocked him. This time, after fifteen rounds of voting, McCarthy made significant concessions to get the Freedom Caucus behind him. One was to restore a tool called the motion to vacate the chair, which would allow a single member to call a vote on ending his Speakership. Another, more consequential move was to appoint Freedom Caucus members to key committees and leadership posts, essentially bringing them into the establishment after years in the cold. “They’ve been used to never having a seat at the table,” one Republican staffer told me. “They’d bitch and moan about it, and go on Fox. That’s changed since the Speaker’s vote.”

Vought, who refers to the Washington establishment as “the cartel,” identifies the Speaker’s battle as the defining moment of the current Congress. “I talk about it in terms of Old Testament versus New Testament,” he told me. “Everything is reinterpreted on the basis of the events that occurred.” McCarthy, he said, was a “cog,” an establishment functionary without a vision. His habit of giving members whatever they wanted—and his reputation as someone who privileged power over principle—appeared to strengthen the position of the ideologues. In January, McCarthy agreed to put two Freedom Caucus members and one of their allies on the Rules Committee, which controls how bills come to the floor for votes. For years, House conservatives had longed for influence on the committee; this outcome seemed to vindicate the strategy of the twenty holdouts who had initially blocked McCarthy. Vought called them “the lions that have been through battle and won.”

The resolution of the Speaker’s fight, Vought said, was a “power-sharing agreement.” “What I mean by that is not unlike what you would see in Israel’s Knesset or the Christian Democrats or Social Democrats in Germany,” Vought said. “You have a minority party that is needed for you to have majority votes. And, as a result, you don’t treat them as backbenchers.” As one Freedom Caucus staffer told me, “The entire point of the Speaker’s fight was that it wouldn’t matter who was behind the gavel. They need us to hold the Conference together. They can’t go around us. We can’t be cut out anymore.”

The Freedom Caucus is best known for what it’s against: the Republican establishment, business as usual in Washington, compromises of any kind. Boehner once said of its members, “They’re anarchists. They want total chaos. Tear it all down and start over. That’s where their mind-set is.” Until now, no member of the Freedom Caucus has ever supported raising the debt ceiling. They are fierce fiscal hawks who want to slash spending, particularly on social programs. Like many others in the Republican Conference, they regard the ballooning federal deficit as an existential threat; unlike the others, they say that they’re willing to let the U.S. default in order to break the cycle of government borrowing and spending.

This past March, however, caucus members staked out a new position. A cadre of hard-line conservatives in the House and Senate believed that they finally had the leverage to shape the Conference debate on a budget proposal. Vought helped them draft it. Eventually called the Limit, Save, Grow Act, it would cut some hundred and thirty billion dollars from the 2024 budget. The provisions were aggressive and wide-ranging, including putting a ten-year cap on federal spending; imposing work requirements on Medicaid eligibility; rolling back aspects of Biden’s signature piece of legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act; and expanding fossil-fuel production. “I love to cut spending wherever it is, and I like to cut spending the most in the bureaucracy,” Vought said. In his telling, this is what separates him from past fiscal hawks, such as Paul Ryan, who proposed revamping Medicare and Social Security. Vought told me that he wasn’t necessarily opposed to that, but it didn’t get him “excited.” “I get excited about cutting the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education. That is where I think there is more damage being done to the American people, and you have an opportunity to fight on it every single year.”

In the spring, McCarthy desperately needed to pass a budget bill to show that the Republican Conference was unified; without it, he lacked the credibility to take the debt-ceiling fight to the White House. Members fell into roughly five camps, ranging from moderate to conservative, each with its own priorities. McCarthy picked the Freedom Caucus’s proposal as the Party’s baseline. “This bill did not come from the Budget Committee, and it did not come from the Speaker. It came from the Freedom Caucus,” Matthew Green, a professor at Catholic University and an expert on Congress, told me. “Think about it: they’re a faction. Only forty to forty-five folks, setting the agenda of the Party. That’s impressive.”

As McCarthy wrangled votes for the bill, a small but varied group of holdouts insisted on meeting with him. Many of their offices received phone calls from Vought: in January, he had been mobilizing the Freedom Caucus against McCarthy; in April, he was backing leadership. “What’s been missing on the right is that we have for far too long been shiny-objected, and let the cartel give us some version of our position,” he told me. Now McCarthy was pitching members on the Freedom Caucus’s own bill. “My view was that, if I was the Speaker of the House, this is the bill I would have written,” Vought said.

Republican moderates ultimately backed the budget bill, knowing that there was no chance it could survive the Democratic Senate. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucustold E&E News, “If there was a 1 percent chance of any of these provisions ever becoming law, a lot of us would have treated that very differently.” When I spoke to Don Bacon, a representative from Nebraska, who has frequently criticized the Freedom Caucus for holding the rest of the Conference hostage, he was sanguine about the bill—not because he agreed with everything in it but because he thought it would force Biden to the negotiating table. The likeliest outcome of talks between Biden and McCarthy looked like a compromise that could earn a majority of Democrats and Republicans, if not a majority of Republicans.

On May 8th, Biden held a “four corners” meeting at the White House with the leaders of Congress: Chuck Schumer and Hakeem Jeffries, the top two Democrats in the Senate and House, respectively; Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader; and McCarthy. The two sides spent the next several days trading accusations that the other wasn’t taking the situation seriously. On May 16th, the White House reduced the size of its negotiating team, a development that insiders saw as a sign the Administration was buckling down. “We finally have a formula that has proven to work in the past,” McCarthy said. For the rest of the month, with the D.C. press corps hounding the negotiators around the Capitol, the updates tended to be vague but optimistic. The talks were narrowing to a set of technical issues: caps to spending on future budgets, efforts to “claw back” unspent money from the pandemic, targeted cuts to Biden’s plans on I.R.S. funding and student debt. This skirted a more obvious impasse over work requirements for recipients of Medicaid and food stamps, where both sides were farther apart.

The bigger question, however, was never clear: What would McCarthy do if he reached an agreement with the President? Democrats had called the House bill “dead on arrival,” and a large share of Republicans recognized that it was, at best, an opening move. It seemed inevitable that McCarthy would have to make some concessions—and that the Freedom Caucus would rebel when he did.

Bob Good, a member of the Freedom Caucus who calls Vought a “good friend” and “tremendous resource,” had opposed McCarthy’s Speakership until the very end of the balloting. At that point, he had voted “present,” to lower the threshold McCarthy needed to secure the majority. “I believe that, if we had simply done what’s sort of always been done,” he told me, “and just voted in our presumptive Speaker on the first ballot, then you would have already seen a four-trillion-dollar debt-ceiling increase.” When Good and I spoke, in early May, he offered cautious praise of McCarthy. “He has pragmatically recognized where the Conference is,” he said. At the same time, he didn’t sound open to compromise on the Freedom Caucus’s bill. “Our position is that this is the negotiated deal,” Good told me.

June 5th is what economists call the “X-Date”—the point at which the government runs out of money. But many of the Republicans I spoke with didn’t seem particularly fazed. Warnings from Janet Yellen, the Secretary of the Treasury, were dismissed as alarmist. A G.O.P. staffer told me that both sides saw the X-Date “as a messaging deadline more so than a practical one.” This was Vought’s position, too. The idea was that the federal government could hit the debt ceiling and simply prioritize paying the interest on its debt over other spending commitments, thus avoiding a technical default. “Part of my role is: don’t let the budget-propeller-head crowds scare you into focussing on spreadsheets and political asks about where the ‘money’ is,” Vought told me. “You’ve got to think politically about where the needs of the country are.”

The vast majority of economists would dispute this, but that wasn’t the point. The Freedom Caucus was claiming it wouldn’t flinch. I sat down with Vought on May 23rd, when McCarthy and Biden were volleying another round of recriminations. Vought gave an impression of serene satisfaction. “They’ll go on TV and try to spook the markets,” he said, of the White House. “They need a crisis. It’s a risk for them to blow up forty years of debt-limit scaremongering.” But ultimately, he said, the President would “capitulate.”

A few days later, he was far more circumspect. On the morning of May 26th, a Friday, McCarthy was signalling that a deal was near. “They’re going in a direction that won’t endure,” Vought told me. “McCarthy is going to test the conservatives.” He predicted some “rockiness” ahead for the Speaker.

Over the weekend, McCarthy and the White House announced that they’d finally reached an agreement. Congress would raise the debt ceiling for the next two years, and the White House would agree to some six hundred and fifty billion dollars in cuts over the following decade. On the issue of work requirements, the White House agreed to some new age restrictions sought by Republicans on cash welfare and food stamps but left Medicaid untouched. The deal also expanded food-stamp access for veterans and the homeless. McCarthy and his negotiators could plausibly claim victory, yet so could the President.

Members of the House Freedom Caucus were furious. On a private conference call, in which McCarthy briefed the rank and file on the deal, Bob Good complained that everything the caucus had “fought for” was left out, according to the Times. Ralph Norman, a caucus member from South Carolina, tweeted, “This ‘deal’ is insanity.” He added, “Not gonna vote to bankrupt our country.” Chip Roy, one of the lead drafters of the budget bill, called the deal a “turd-sandwich,” and retweeted indignant, detail-leaden threads from Vought. House conservatives looked to Vought, as their budget guru, to parse how the deal amounted to yet another establishment deception. “No time for defeatism on the inevitability of this terrible bill passing,” he wrote. “Trust the Mighty 20 who changed the House in January. There are three conservatives on the all-important Rules Committee for a reason.”

On Tuesday evening, however, the bill made it through the Rules Committee, which was supposed to be a conservative firewall. “Conservatives have been sold out once again,” Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, said. In the House, McCarthy and Jeffries were reportedly whipping their more moderate members, leaving aside disgruntled conservatives and progressives. Jeffries suggested that Democrats would only help pass the bill if McCarthy could deliver at least a hundred and fifty votes from Republicans. But McCarthy was already acting like the worst was behind him. Before entering a meeting with Republican House members, where he was greeted with applause, McCarthy told reporters, “I thrive for these moments.”

On Wednesday night, the bill passed the House by a striking margin—three hundred and fourteen votes in favor, a hundred and seventeen against. McCarthy had delivered two-thirds of his own conference, a strong rebuke to disgruntled conservatives. But the Freedom Caucus could still find cause for offense: like Boehner, McCarthy had needed Democratic votes to compensate for alienating members of the far right, and more Democrats ultimately voted for the final bill than Republicans. “This is what it looks like when the uniparty cartel sells out the American people,” Dan Bishop, a Freedom Caucus member from North Carolina, tweeted. Several Freedom Caucus members have already floated the possibility of calling a vote to try to oust McCarthy. In a way, though, they could have more to lose than the Speaker. Their power depends on proving the seriousness of their threats. Did their play in January meaningfully change their position inside the Conference? Or had McCarthy simply outmaneuvered them all along? “There was a deal,” Vought told me. “If you want to go back on that, there are going to be consequences.”



Botón volver arriba