Rebellious rank-and-file House Republicans are feeling pressure from leaders to toe the party line.
While leaders aren’t whipping Members on some major votes — amendments to this week’s stopgap spending measure, for example — they have strongly tried to minimize defections on procedural matters and made it clear that unity is a priority.
“They wanted me to change my vote, but I told them I couldn’t do it,” said Rep. Walter Jones Jr., who noted that GOP leaders approached him on the House floor Jan. 26 after he voted in favor of a Democratic motion to recommit and tried to persuade him to change his mind.
The North Carolina Republican, who regularly breaks with his leadership, held his ground and became the first in his party to support a Democratic motion to recommit this year. So far, he and another frequent Republican defector, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), are the only GOP lawmakers who have backed Democratic motions to recommit.
Jones said he resisted pressure to change his position because he supported the substance of the Democratic motion, which would have forced disclosure of foreign contributions to presidential campaigns.
“I’ve been a reformer and, to me, you have to vote your conscience,” he said. “I’m pleased and proud to be a Republican, but when it comes down to it, I have to do what’s right for the people I represent.”
On another procedural vote — adoption of the rule governing the floor debate on Republicans’ stopgap spending measure — Rep. Steve King said he also faced pressure from leadership to stick with the Conference.
The Iowa Republican, who was angry that the rule would not allow him to offer an amendment to block funding for last year’s health care law, said he was persuaded to vote “present” after “a series of fairly intense discussions” with leaders that took place right “up to 25 seconds or so” before the floor vote ended. King said GOP leaders made the argument that Republicans “want to be together” on procedural matters and don’t want to “let Democrats take over this chamber.”
“I could have easily voted no,” King said. “Having an intense dialogue up the leadership chain convinced me that we’re talking business. I want that door to stay open.”
GOP leadership aides stressed that leaders aren’t formally whipping procedural votes but acknowledged leaders have made the case that they are seeking unity on procedural matters, especially on Democratic motions to recommit.
“When leadership reaches out on things like this, it’s Member education, it’s not whipping,” one leadership aide said.
Democrats have launched a floor strategy that involves employing the motion to recommit — one of the few tools in the minority — to force Republicans to take tough votes on politically sensitive topics. And Republicans think their best strategy for taking the sting out of these votes is for all their Members to vote “no.”
Republicans “get that Democrats are using the [motion to recommit] as a transparent political attempt ... to derail our agenda,” the leadership aide said. “So of course we’re going to want to speak in one voice and in a unified way against their attempts.”
“The motion to recommit is a procedural vote that is used as a political move,” said Erica Elliott, a spokeswoman for Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “It’s a transparent attempt to keep us from doing what the American people sent us here to do: create jobs and cut spending.”
On Friday, a handful of Republicans initially voted in favor of a Democratic motion to recommit a GOP measure boosting review of federal regulations that could impede job growth. The Democratic proposal would have made preserving the safety of food, drinking water and children’s toys a priority of the review. But all the Republicans who initially voted “yes” changed their votes to “no” before the vote concluded.
Several Republicans who changed their votes said they didn’t face pressure from leadership to do so and they erred when they initially voted for the Democratic motion. Freshman Rep. Mo Brooks said he “absolutely” planned to oppose Democratic motions to recommit, which he described as “sugar-coated poison pills.”
“I understand when people are making motions of substance and when they are just trying to make motions for political purposes or campaign purposes, and the Democrats — so far — have not had any motions of substance,” the Alabama Republican said.
“Leadership has not suggested to me how to vote on any issue,” Brooks added.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions said he doubts Democrats will be able to use GOP votes on motions to recommit against them.
“What is inside the motion to recommit is not even known except — literally — the minute they offer it,” the Texas Republican said. “So it’s a procedural vote.”
Sessions said Republicans were advising Members “that they need to pay attention” to the motions to recommit but that freshmen were “learning on their own” not to vote for them.
Democrats, meanwhile, feel confident they are building up a reservoir of campaign ammunition.
“The constituents will decide whether they cast the right votes on this,” said Rep. Robert Andrews, whose input on procedural tactics has been solicited by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“I don’t think most voters think, ‘Well, it’s a procedural issue, it didn’t really matter,’” the New Jersey Democrat said. “You’re asked to express your opinion on something. And certainly if their answer is ‘because my party leadership told me to,’ I don’t think most voters will think that’s a very good reason.”