The House GOP’s Antagonism Caucus
They’re not a loyal opposition. They’re a thoughtless—and dangerous—opposition.
ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT, the House of Representatives passed legislation to raise the national debt ceiling. The bill, which imposed spending restraints and other changes sought by conservatives, was a compromise worked out between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Everything in the bill, other than the debt-limit increase, was a concession to House Republicans. Despite this, 71 Republicans, nearly a third of the House GOP, voted against the legislation. More Democrats than Republicans voted for it.
Why did so many Democrats support the bill? And why did so many Republicans reject it? Those two questions are perversely related. On the Republican right, there’s a cluster of lawmakers who voted no—or who urged their colleagues to vote no—in part because Democrats endorsed the bill. To these lawmakers, anything the other party supports is suspect.
THIS CLUSTER of Republicans—what I call the antagonism caucus—is a subset of the House Freedom Caucus. On Tuesday, at a Freedom Caucus press conference to oppose the debt-limit bill, Rep. Andy Biggs—who chaired the Freedom Caucus in the last Congress—worried that Democrats were suspiciously untroubled by the bill’s “pay-go” provision, which was supposed to constrain spending. “There’s a reason that the Biden administration has no concern over this provision,” he warned. If Democrats were okay with the bill, he suggested, then Republicans shouldn’t be.
That phrase—there’s a reason—is a common refrain in the antagonism caucus. It expresses the assumption that anything Democrats favor, or even accept, must be bad. “There is a reason why 100 Democrats, none of which voted for our initial bill, [are] now for” the compromise debt-ceiling bill, Rep. Ralph Norman surmised at the Tuesday press conference. “It’s because they got what they wanted,” said Norman. “It’s time for us to say no.”
Biggs predicted, accurately, that more than two-thirds of House Democrats would vote for the bill. He concluded that this should make Republicans queasy. He said House leaders were trying to pump up GOP support for the bill so that Republicans wouldn’t “feel too doggone bad when 150 Democrats vote for it.”
IT’S TRUE THAT IN SOME CASES, Democrats accepted legislative provisions for reasons that should concern right-wing Republicans: for example, because there was flexibility in the bill’s text. But the main reason why so many Democrats voted for the bill wasn’t that they loved these provisions. It was that they didn’t want the government to default on its debts.
This makes the visceral contrariness of the antagonism caucus particularly unhealthy. When you reflexively oppose a party that’s trying not to default, you can end up defaulting.
At the Freedom Caucus press conference, Republican Rep. Bob Good complained that House GOP leaders had a sordid history of consorting with the other party. “Republican leadership, when we [previously] had the majority, passed major spending packages with a majority of Democrat votes,” he fumed. “I predict that will happen tomorrow night,” he added, correctly.
Some House Democrats, recognizing that House Republicans crave liberal tears, have emphasized their discomfort with the bill’s concessions. But Rep. Byron Donalds, another right-wing Republican, isn’t fooled. “The White House is telling Democrats, ‘Have crocodile tears, but vote for the bill,’” Donalds told his colleagues at the press conference. He advised Republicans to ignore the tears and to worry instead about “100 Democrats who are now greenlighting [that] they will vote for this bill.”
IN TV INTERVIEWS, the antagonism caucus has made it clear that it closely monitors Democrats’ behavior. On Tuesday, Rep. Lauren Boebert told Newsmax host Eric Bolling that Republicans should be alarmed because Biden and the Democrats were “gleeful” about the bill. Originally, Democrats “were thinking about taking this to the streets over these spending cuts,” said Boebert. But “now they’re actually whipping votes in favor” of the bill.
Rep. Dan Bishop, another member of the caucus, told CNN that Republicans should “reflect on the fact that Pramila Jayapal”—the chair of the House Progressive Caucus—“just came out and said she liked” the bill. Not true: Jayapal had in fact criticized much of the bill, and she ended up voting against it. But Bishop used her anyway as a bogeyman to scare Republicans away from it.
Rep. Scott Perry, the current chair of the Freedom Caucus, peddled a similar fiction on Fox News. He warned that when Democrats were “saying that they’re getting everything in their agenda funded by the Republicans, that’s a problem.” In reality, Democrats were saying no such thing. But Perry, like Bishop, just wanted to scare Republicans. McCarthy’s job, said Perry, was to “make good deals, not do what the Democrats wanted.”
On Wednesday, Biggs indicated that he was tracking Democratic support as an index of the bill’s unworthiness. “If this thing gets fewer than 100, 150 Democrats voting [for] it today, I’ll be stunned,” he told Newsmax. “They’re voting for this because they’ve read the bill, and they know that that they’re protected, and the Republicans got basically nothing out of this.”
On Wednesday evening, as the vote neared, Rep. Matt Gaetz told Newsmax that the surge of Democratic support for the bill validated his decision to oppose it. “The two principal dynamics happening right now around this bill,” said Gaetz, were that “Democrats are moving toward it, and Republicans are moving away from it.”
THE ANTAGONISM CAUCUS doesn’t rely entirely on Democrats as a sign of what to avoid. It also steers away from anything supported by moderate—or even reasonable—Republicans. In their conversation on Newsmax, Boebert and Bolling commiserated about so-called conservatives who were backing the bill. “When you have Mitt Romney, the Wall Street Journal, and Mitch McConnell” on board, said Bolling, “you know it’s not a good deal for conservatives.”
Bulwark editor-at-large Bill Kristol is another a negative cue for these deeply adversarial Republicans. At the Freedom Caucus press conference on Tuesday, Rep. Chip Roy told his colleagues to oppose the bill because “there’s a reason our Democrat colleagues support this. There’s a reason that Mitt Romney supports this. There’s a reason that Bill Kristol supports this. It’s all the same stuff.”
Now that the bill has passed with Democratic support, some Republicans who opposed it are claiming vindication. Thursday morning on Fox News, Brian Kilmeade asked Rep. Nancy Mace whether she regretted her vote against it. Mace replied that the outcome proved she was right: “You had more Democrats than Republicans voting for the bill. And that says a lot about the legislation.”
The logic is impeccably circular. First you vote against the bill because Democrats support it. Then you cite your own behavior—Republicans voting against the bill—as evidence that only Democrats should have supported it.
Partisan polarization is bad for governing and policymaking. It’s sad when public servants rely on negative tribalism, not affirmative principles, to guide their conduct. And in the case of the big national challenges such as defending Ukraine and paying America’s debts, it’s particularly dangerous. Sometimes Congress has to come together to defend common values and interests. When one party opposes whatever the other party supports, that kind of unity becomes impossible.
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