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McCarthy will need the support of House Freedom Caucus members in his bid to be Speaker

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy secured the backing of his conference in a leadership vote last week, the first step in becoming the next speaker of the House. But he was challenged by Arizona Congressman Andy Biggs, who wants a shake-up in his party's leadership.

ANDY BIGGS: And now people say don't change the status quo because the majority is too thin. So what they're saying is, well, let's just never change the status quo. I think the American people want us to change the status quo, and I think the members do.

RASCOE: McCarthy easily defeated Biggs this time. But to be elected by the full House in January, McCarthy has to get votes from almost all of those who backed his challenger, and many of them are part of a group called the House Freedom Caucus. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now to talk about that group and the sway they'll have next year. Welcome to the program.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Remind us how this group got started. Like, what is their origin story?

WALSH: So the House Freedom Caucus was formed back in 2015. It's a group of hard-line House conservatives who didn't think their leadership at the time - it was led by then House Speaker John Boehner - was conservative enough. Some of the founding members of the group are people like Mark Meadows, Mick Mulvaney. I'm sure you recognize their names as former Trump administration officials. Meadows used a tool at the time to try to bring up a resolution to remove Boehner as speaker. It didn't work initially, but it was basically a warning shot and a no-confidence vote for Boehner. He did step down before he was officially forced out.

The House Freedom Caucus members want to slash federal spending. They want to shrink the role of the federal government, and they want to defund many of President Biden's priorities.

RASCOE: What are they demanding now?

WALSH: Right now, they don't want to agree to any big spending bill during this lame duck session of Congress. But more broadly, they want McCarthy next year to give members more of a role in shaping legislation. Texas Republican Chip Roy is one of these conservatives who's talking about how he wants to change operations in the House.

CHIP ROY: The country is begging for change in this town. The fact that we haven't offered an amendment on the floor since May of 2016 speaks for itself. Like, it's just absurd.

WALSH: But, you know, since they've been around, the House Freedom Caucus has a reputation for derailing legislation, not much of a record of actually getting many policies through.

RASCOE: So what is Kevin McCarthy's relationship like with members of the Freedom Caucus?

WALSH: It started out rocky. I mean, back in 2015, he couldn't get their votes when he ran to replace Boehner as speaker. But McCarthy's made a point to develop good relationships with some key members. He's on good terms with Jim Jordan, one of these leading conservatives. He's in line to chair the House Judiciary Committee. So Jordan is essentially going to be part of the leadership table next Congress. McCarthy kept making the point this week that holding the majority means controlling committees, controlling the agenda and acting as a check on the Biden administration. But he also stressed with a razor-thin majority, they have to be on the same team.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: We know our job will not be easy. We know the task. We've got a close majority. We're going to have to work together.

RASCOE: So, I mean, is he going to be able to win them over? And, like, what will that mean for how Republicans govern?

WALSH: It's going to be a grind. Biggs released a long post on Friday insisting he will never vote for McCarthy, and he says his voters want him to fight. One thing McCarthy is doing right now is trying to listen to all of their demands. A lot of them are kind of weedy changes to how committees operate, how amendments are handled. He's overseeing this process to write rules for the next Congress, things that Republicans all support, like doing away with the mags outside the chamber that were put in after January 6. But others are much bigger changes that moderates aren't going to want to agree to. Even if McCarthy can get votes from the House Freedom Caucus for speaker, it doesn't change the fact that this group is going to have a lot of power because you are only going to need a handful of votes to blow up the leadership's agenda.

RASCOE: That's NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Thanks for joining us this morning.

WALSH: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.