Jun 14, 2023

The House Freedom Caucus revolt.

The House Freedom Caucus revolt.
Congressman Kevin McCarthy speaks to guests before an evening parade at Marine Barracks Washington, Washington D.C., May 18, 2018. Congressman Kevin McCarthy was the honored guest at this evening’s parade. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Olivia G. Ortiz)

Republican infighting led to a week-long standoff in Congress.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

We're covering some infighting in the Republican party, and what it might mean for the future of Congress. Plus, a reader question ahout labeling "left" and "right" arguments.


In our June 7 newsletter, we wrote that the reservoir behind the Kakhovka dam, one of the largest in Europe, holds "about 5 million gallons of water." In fact, it holds about 5 trillion gallons of water (5 million would be about the size of a small pond). The error just came to our attention.

This is our 85th correction in Tangle's 203-week history and our first since May 17th. We track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.

Quick hits.

  1. Former President Trump pleaded not guilty to 37 charges related to his alleged mishandling of classified documents. His lawyers also requested a jury trial. (The plea)
  2. At least 11 people were killed in eastern Ukraine by a Russian missile strike. (The strike)
  3. 22 U.S. service members were injured in a helicopter crash in northeastern Syria. (The crash)
  4. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre violated the Hatch Act, according to the Office of Special Counsel. The Hatch Act prohibits civil-service employees from engaging in political activity, and Jean-Pierre allegedly violated it by making frequent references to "MAGA Republicans." (The story)
  5. Illinois became the first state to outlaw book bans in libraries as states across the country challenge and remove literature from public schools and libraries. (The law)

Today's topic.

Republicans, the House Freedom Caucus, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. On Monday, Speaker McCarthy struck a deal with a group of conservative Republicans that will allow legislation to begin moving on the House floor again after the chamber was ground to a halt for a week.

Last week, after McCarthy helped usher in a bipartisan deal on the debt ceiling that did not include any of the deep spending cuts the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) had demanded, members of the group expressed their displeasure by stopping progress on several Republican bills. Since Republicans hold a slim 222-213 majority in the House, the HFC has a lot of power in Congress, which it flexed by voting with Democrats on a procedural vote that halted two Republican bills to limit regulations on gas stoves. Since it has little chance of passing the Democrat-controlled Senate, the bill was seen primarily as messaging from House Republicans to their base.

Members of a party in the majority halting a procedural vote by their own party is extremely rare in modern politics; the most recent occurrence was almost 21 years ago. The move effectively froze legislative action in Congress for all of last week, until the two sides announced a deal on Monday.

In the agreement, members of the House Freedom Caucus said they want to see progress on a power-sharing arrangement with McCarthy, otherwise they would continue to block votes on the House floor. The group then successfully combined five bills — including the two gas stove bills, a bill to repeal a federal ban on pistol braces, and legislation to limit the power of federal agencies — into one. That bill narrowly passed the House on Tuesday.

As part of their requests, HFC lawmakers say they are going to push for additional spending cuts in the 12 appropriations bills that Congress has to enact by October 1 to keep federal agencies open, setting up the prospect of a spending standoff and potential government shutdown.

Republican lawmakers hope to use debate on those appropriations bills to eliminate an estimated 1,100 programs that have not been authorized by Congress and represent about $100 billion in spending. House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX) said she will advance bills that cut 2024 spending to 2022 levels by reducing domestic spending while preserving funding for national defense, the border and veterans.

“The Fiscal Responsibility Act set a topline spending cap – a ceiling, not a floor – for Fiscal Year 2024 bills," Granger said. "That is why I will use this opportunity to mark up appropriations bills that limit new spending to the Fiscal Year 2022 topline level.”

Democrats objected to news of the deal, saying Republicans were reneging on the deal they struck with President Joe Biden just last week.

“They are disregarding the letter and the spirit of the agreement between the president and the speaker of the House,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) said.

Much of the tension stems back to McCarthy's House Speaker election. As part of a deal to win the gavel, McCarthy agreed to several measures, including restoring a rule that allows any single member to trigger a recall vote of his speakership. That power gives individual members more leverage in negotiations with McCarthy. Other details of the deal he made with House Republicans are still unknown.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions to this tension from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Like Congress, the right is divided on the deal, with some criticizing HFC members and others wondering who controls the House.
  • Some argue conservative Republicans are effectively throwing a temper tantrum, and have less power than they think.
  • Others say they can force McCarthy into a more conservative agenda and should continue to play offense aggressively.

The New York Post editorial board criticized the House Freedom Caucus, saying they were tossing more toys from their cribs.

"In a stunt supposedly aimed at demonstrating their anger that Speaker Kevin McCarthy broke his word to them in cutting the debt-limit deal, a dozen House Republicans just killed (for now) four . . . Republican bills," the board said. "Yep: It’s cutting off your nose to spite your face." None of these Republicans actually oppose the bills, it's just a "protest against the 'imperial speakership,' says ringleader Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)." But all they've really shown "is that they can join with Democrats to block perfectly fine Republican measures."

"It also gives the usual media suspects grist for more rounds of 'Republican infighting/incompetence' stories — which counts as a win for the Gaetzes and Boeberts, obsessed as they are with raising their own profiles, results be damned," the board said. "Nor will Matt [Gaetz] or Lauren [Boebert] lose a wink of sleep if it means GOP Senate candidates next year can’t argue 'vote for me to save your gas stove.' ... They claim to be 'conservatives,' but 'performance artists' seems more accurate."

In National Review, Philip A. Wallach asked "who controls the House?"

"For the first time in 21 years, a rule was voted down on the floor of the House. Rather than vote with their own majority party, as has been nearly automatic on rule votes in recent years, eleven Republican members voted with Democrats to sink the rule," Wallach said. Majority leaders have long assumed "there will be no surprises" on these votes, because they structure the agenda for what legislation can be formally considered and concerns can be brought before a vote. But defecting Republicans sunk the rule to register their displeasure with the debt limit deal.

Still, the "dissenters’ leverage here should not be overstated." A debt ceiling deal was passed because moderate Republicans worked with Democrats. "If McCarthy’s detractors wanted to become a more potent force for reshaping the House, they would need to have some positive agenda that enticed Democrats," Wallach said. Indeed, if McCarthy's critics "aren't careful, they might push him permanently into the bipartisan-dealmaking mode that has so enraged them already." Right now, "it is the moderates in the chamber, rather than the members on either extreme," who are best positioned to take advantage of an environment where bipartisan coalitions can advance legislation without support from leadership.

In The Daily Caller, David Bossie threw his support behind the dissenters.

Republicans had the upper hand on Biden, and it was assumed Speaker McCarthy was "fighting hard for the original House bill" on the debt ceiling that passed in April. Instead, "something far different came out of the talks — a typical Washington bait and switch — full of gross exaggeration and swampy political spin." Though Biden and McCarthy both “claimed victory” on the deal, that “a whopping 77%” of Democrats voted for it should “tell you all you need to know.” Try as he might to deny it, McCarthy "got his clock cleaned over the debt deal."

"As the months go by in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election, it will become evident that nothing in the Biden-McCarthy bill did anything to alter our country-wrecking financial trajectory," Bossie said. The House Freedom Caucus "understands fully" the damage Biden's agenda could do, which is why "11 courageous conservatives" sent the message the deals cut in January must be honored. The House should pursue spending cuts, force FBI Director Christopher Wray to testify, and introduce articles of impeachment for Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Republicans need to "get on offense and stay there."

What the left is saying.

  • The left is critical of Republicans, saying that killing their own rules shows their party is in disarray.
  • Some argue that McCarthy is trying to satisfy extremists, which puts him in a bad position.
  • Others suggest the House Freedom Caucus knows they can't oust McCarthy, but they can certainly embarrass him.

In The American Prospect, David Dayen said that Republicans are in "disarray."

“It is a testament to the strangeness of the modern Republican Party that the indictment of a former president for improper retention of national security documents has united them, and perfunctory House votes on a series of deregulatory bills has divided them," Dayen said. Rule votes are usually party-line affairs, and haven't failed "since 2002," until the HFC "revolted" last week. Ironically, the only bills that the HFC held “in limbo” were ones they’ve been advocating for, “like the REINS Act" or two bills to “preserve Americans’ God-given right to a gas stove, which is not actually under threat."

Looking ahead, the HFC actions “should be seen as an attempt to effectively revise the deal at the appropriations stage,” Dayen said. “McCarthy is being implicitly threatened with his speakership if he doesn’t hold to lower spending." Meanwhile, McConnell is getting pressured to "plus-up" the military budget. “All of that points to stopgap funding to prevent an October 1 government shutdown," which would "render all the work on the debt ceiling spending caps rather meaningless." The disarray from the Republicans, “not the administration’s negotiating,” could lead “to the debt limit crisis having a much more favorable outcome than expected.”

In The Washington Post, Dana Milbank called the proceedings "a spectacular flameout."

Coming off the debt ceiling deal, McCarthy was “king of the world,” but has since done “the legislative equivalent of slipping on a banana peel," Milbank says. “McCarthy had only himself to blame” for the House shutdown, and “the debt deal, which earned the votes of 2 in 3 Republicans and 4 in 5 Democrats, gave him a template for success. But instead of using it, he launched a doomed effort to win back the far right — with some gaslighting."

McCarthy tried “the classic culture-war script," specifically "that the Biden administration is coming to take away your gas stove — and then force votes on legislation to counter the nonexistent threat." Instead, “the right-wing holdouts struck” without warning and voted with Democrats against the rules for debate, “the first such rebuke to leadership since 2002,” Milbank says. “Trying to satisfy the extremists (who, as McCarthy noted, haven’t articulated coherent demands) is pointless. As long as McCarthy attempts to appease them, any hope of actual legislative achievement will be on the back burner. And any hope for a successful speakership will go up in smoke.”

In MSNBC, Steve Benen said that the Freedom Caucus "can't oust McCarthy, but it can embarrass him."

"After House Speaker Kevin McCarthy ignored the Freedom Caucus’ wishes and struck a bipartisan budget deal with President Joe Biden, the far-right lawmakers weighed their options," Benen said. Some in the caucus "considered trying to take his gavel away," an idea which "collapsed rather quickly." Then on Tuesday, the contingent settled on Plan B: " joining all Democrats to block a pair of GOP bills to protect gas stoves to express their anger over the debt deal."

“What party leaders did not realize" was that the HFC, “still enraged that McCarthy didn’t push the United States closer to an economic catastrophe," is willing to "spite GOP leaders by derailing their own party’s legislative agenda,” Benen said. “The fact that McCarthy wanted to score a cheap political victory yesterday was a problem. The fact that he failed made the problem worse. But worse still is the fact that the House speaker was embarrassed: McCarthy apparently had no idea his own members were poised to block the party’s legislation.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • I differ from both sides here, in that I actually think the HFC’s move is healthy for Congress and could be very good long-term.
  • Party leadership currently has too much power, and the HFC is pulling some back to representatives.
  • The practical implications of this seem mostly positive to me.

Honestly? I think it's great.

I know that most of the news coverage has framed this as "chaos" or "dysfunction", but I view it pretty differently. For years, leadership in both parties has had concentrated power and forced their agenda on representatives who are supposed to represent their constituents. Now, House Republicans are bucking that trend and pulling some power away from the top.

There are limits, of course. I was, and remain, very critical of the debt ceiling standoff. I don't think risking an economic catastrophe for budget concessions is how you should legislate, and I certainly don't think it's a healthy way to run a country. As time has gone on, House Republicans’ actions have made me more convinced that eliminating the debt ceiling is the best course of action for fiscal conservatives and for liberals alike.

But what the HFC is doing now — wielding power and forcing negotiations on legislation and appropriations — is the job of Congress. And members of the House Freedom Caucus are well within their right to exercise that power.

To be clear: You don't have to support the HFC agenda to support how they’re advancing it. In fact, this may be an especially good thing if you don't support their hardline views. As Philip Wallach noted (under "What the right is saying"), there is a read of this new dynamic that moderates on both sides are becoming more powerful because of the HFC's punitive actions, which could result in more bipartisan legislation, which would represent a tactical blunder by members of the HFC.

But what they've definitely done is constrained McCarthy and Republican leadership. They’ve made it so a few people can’t simply decide something is going to become a law and then that thing becomes a law, or there is going to be a deal and now everyone has to vote for that deal. For decades, we've seen leadership on both sides run Congress in this way. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, which is largely being framed as “powerful” and “historic,” was indeed powerful and historic — for Nancy Pelosi. The other 200-plus representatives she oversaw had little power to shape their own histories. I actually don’t think that is a good way for Congress to work. The result was that other members of Congress — the ones voted in to represent their districts — had few levers to pull aside from showing party leadership their worth through fundraising or convincing them to advance legislation they wanted.

So, let's talk about practical implications: The House Speaker now has to consider the far-right members of his party and work with Democrats and represent the moderate Republicans who put him there. Rule changes pushed by the HFC could lead to more debate on the House floor and more open consideration of amendments. Fewer bills will be brought up for procedural votes where the outcome is pre-ordained. New coalitions among different blocs of Congress will have to form to pass legislation. Why, again, is this a bad thing? Why are we so allergic to this possibility?

I understand not liking Speaker McCarthy's leadership style. I understand worrying about the furthest right wing of Congress having outsized power. And I certainly understand why people are framing this as "dysfunctional." But Congress should be a little messy, it should be interesting, and it should be less predictable. I, for one, am glad to see things shaken up a bit — and very interested to see if we can inspire a new era of compromise, debate, and a more even distribution of power.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Why do you state the label of each side when you sum up what they're saying? Why don't you just say One Side and the Other Side? I think that would be a lot more helpful in uncovering our own biases. And more fun too.

— Shannon, from Newport, Washington

Tangle: We get this question pretty regularly, and I think I've answered it a couple times in the newsletter. But it's been long enough it's worth addressing again.

For starters, I think there is some upside to framing it the way we do. For instance, if you are a left-leaning person and you read an argument from "the right" that resonates, that is probably a good and healthy thing. It helps you respect the other side's perspective and may even make you more sympathetic to their argument, or, hell, even change your mind.

Second, I've also heard from a lot of readers who want to know what each side is arguing, because it helps inform their vote. We do play with the format sometimes (when there are no clear dividing lines), as we did in this piece on Section 230. I will keep doing that when it seems appropriate; but for now, you can expect that part of the format to largely stay the same.

I also think most readers are going to know the ideological tilt of the argument anyway, so I don't think removing the section headings would really matter. For instance, if we were to put an argument up from The Wall Street Journal editorial board in an ambiguously labeled section like "On the one hand..." it's not as if people won't know what side they are representing. The only way to resolve that would be to not include or otherwise obscure the source of the argument, but then we run into the problem of not fairly attributing the writers we’re quoting.

This isn't to say I don't have worries about the current format. It is concerning to me that this structure can reinforce the myth of the left and right. It is also concerning that some readers will skip over certain sections because they think they know that side's argument, or they simply don't want to hear it. But ultimately, we are trying to both inform people and get them out of their bubbles, and I think making it clear where the partisan dividing lines are — and including a wide range of views within those lines — is the best way to do that.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The Sunday Times has published a controversial piece on "what really went on inside the Wuhan lab" weeks before Covid-19 spread across the globe. The piece alleges that researchers had discovered a new kind of coronavirus in 2016 in a mineshaft in China and then transported the virus to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. There, researchers made the virus more contagious to humans while exploring vaccine possibilities as well as biological weapons. The reporters allege the virus then leaked into the city of Wuhan after a laboratory accident, according to anonymous U.S. investigators. The story.

The piece has been the subject of much criticism, including this viral (no pun intended) Twitter thread from virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen.

Blindspot report.

Once a week, we present the Blindspot Report from our partners at Ground News, an app that tells you the bias of news coverage and what stories people on each side are missing.

The right missed a story about how 4% of the adult population, or roughly 12 million Americans, think violence is justified to restore Trump to the White House, according to a new survey.

The left missed a story about BioNTech facing its first lawsuit over side effects from the Covid-19 vaccine.


  • 21. The number of years since a rule was voted down on the House floor.
  • 11. The number of House Freedom Caucus Republicans who helped sink the rule.
  • 56%. The percentage of all House members who have served six or fewer years in Congress, according to Pew.
  • 71%. The percentage of members of the House Freedom Caucus and its allies who have served six or fewer years in Congress, according to Pew.
  • 13%. The percentage of all House members who have served for 20 or more years in Congress, according to Pew.
  • 0%. The percentage of members of the House Freedom Caucus and its allies who have served for 20 or more years in Congress, according to Pew.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we published a piece on a gun control deal in the Senate.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the story of the Burisma executive with recordings of his conversations with Joe and Hunter Biden.
  • Good choice: 40% of Tangle readers agreed with the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Alabama's district map and said that Alabama should draw two majority-black districts. 37% Agreed with the decision, but thought the state should not have to draw two majority-black districts. 10% disagreed and thought the state should not have to draw two majority-black districts, while 2% disagreed and thought that the state should draw two majority-black districts. 11% were unsure or had no opinion.
  • Nothing to do with politics: A fisherman caught a lot of fish, and a stolen Jeep.
  • Take the poll. Who do you view more favorably, the HFC or McCarthy? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

The Houston Zoo is having its elephants do yoga. Every morning, the zoo's elephants participate in a static or slow-motion stretching practice to help them strengthen muscle groups while stimulating their brains and bodies. During the session, zookeepers get a full look at the elephants, from trunk to tail, and check on their range of motion. To help keep them motivated to move, the elephants are rewarded with special treats like whole wheat bread or bananas. The elephants get to stretch their limbs, and some can even do headstands. "Cultivating strong, positive relationships with our elephants is critical," said Kristin Windle, Houston Zoo elephant supervisor. "The elephant yoga stretching sessions allow us to build that relationship using positive reinforcement to increase their range of motion and get eyes on their skin, feet, and inside their mouths. We can learn a lot about our elephants in these important sessions.” Good News Network has the story.

Don't forget:

— Isaac & the Tangle team

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.