The difficulties of managing a slim House GOP majority with a more open legislative process are starting to show after a period of relative harmony that followed a drawn-out Speaker’s election at the start of the year.
The Parents’ Bill of Rights bill that passed the House on Friday is the latest example of those challenges, even on measures that had been a longtime GOP campaign promises. Five House Republicans voted against it, which could have sunk the bill if not for Democratic absences.
House Republicans know that they’re not one big happy family – but they are trying to embrace it.
House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said in an interview at House Republicans’ annual issues retreat last week that Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) opened up the gathering in Central Florida by saying he refers to the House GOP as a family, but knows Emmer would disagree with that.
“He said he’d call us dysfunctional. And I said, ‘barely functioning,” Emmer told The Hill.
And Republicans have a much more difficult issue ahead than the Parents Bill of Rights — which is not expected to get a vote in the Senate — as they head into a high-stakes standoff with the White House over spending cuts as a condition of raising the debt limit.
Objections from moderates like Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) have also complicated a border and immigration package that is expected to see committee action next month.
The final House majority of 222 Republicans to 213 Democrats is slimmer than what Emmer, who ran the National Republican Congressional Committee in the last two cycles, was expecting.
“I thought the low end was probably around the mid-220s, probably 226,” Emmer said.
With that margin, every member’s voice becomes more important.
“Everybody matters if you want this thing to work. It doesn’t matter whether anybody gets along or likes each other or socializes together,” Emmer said.
House Republicans at the GOP retreat flaunted recent legislative wins, such as getting President Biden to reverse course to sign a House GOP-led bill to block a D.C. crime law from taking effect.
But they also held multiple closed door sessions on working together, including a talk from “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” author Pat Lencioni and one from NFL quarterback Drew Brees on teamwork, showing that leaders are tuned in to the difficulties of managing the conference.
McCarthy’s commitment to decentralize power in the House — such as following regular order to send bills through committee rather than straight to the floor — has pleased hardline GOP members who had opposed him for Speaker.
“I learned this – maybe the hard way, going through the Speaker race and others – we have to retool and rethink,” McCarthy said in Orlando.
But opening up that process also poses risks for leaders trying to push legislation through. A poison pill amendment, for instance, could kill a bill.
A “no” vote on the Parents Bill of Rights on Friday from Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), a freshman who represents a district that Biden won in 2020, showed the risks of the kind of more open process that McCarthy has granted.
Lawler said in a statement that he voted against the bill despite co-sponsoring it because “a late amendment to the bill – that unnecessarily targeted certain children – went too far,” worrying it could put “vulnerable children at greater risk.” According to his office, Lawler was referring to an amendment from Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) that was adopted by voice vote, which directed schools to notify parents if transgender girls and women were permitted in changing rooms or restrooms that didn’t correspond with their sex assigned at birth.
McCarthy, though, suggested in Orlando that Republicans are trying to avoid that kind of scenario.
“It’s not where the committees just work, and then okay, we’re gonna get on the floor and people are just going to then change with their amendments,” McCarthy said. “What we try to do now is work all that out at the beginning.”
The Parents Bill of Rights, which was fueled by pushback to pandemic lockdowns and culture war issues, included requirements for schools to post curriculum publicly and notify parents when there is violence on campus. Other GOP members like Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) voted against it over federalism concerns, and desire to lower federal involvement in education rather than increase it.
Biggs said that leaders whipped hard on the bill. And McCarthy told reporters after the vote on Friday that he was able to sway some members who had federalism concerns to support it.
“We simply explained the bill,” McCarthy said. “When you’re talking about federalism, it means empowering the individual. We just empower parents to have a say in their kids’ education against the infrastructure of a Biden administration that won’t allow that to happen.”
Emmer and his team learned from the difficulties so far, he said, and the former hockey coach calls being Whip “the best coaching job I’ve ever had.” He fired up his whip operation earlier than expected during the Speaker saga.
“That first week with the Speaker’s race taught me everything I needed to know about this job,” Emmer said in Orlando.
Experiences like changing the minds of some GOP members who did not want to vote to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee also proved to be informative.
“Much like when you’re at a hockey rink, you better know where that guy was that was behind you. Because if you don’t know, if you don’t have an understanding, you might get your face planted into the board,” Emmer said.
“Part of that is like, artificial intelligence. Every time we do this, we learn a little bit more, and we get a little bit better,” Emmer said.
He’s trying to prove to members they can trust his team with their concerns, he said.
“You need to be honest with us. We’re not going to share that with anybody else. We’re going to try to help you be successful. Because if you can be successful, then you can help us,” Emmer said.