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“He Left Everybody at the Altar”: Gloom, Despair, and Capitol Hill's Game of Thrones

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Representative Tim Huelskamp thought that something seemed a bit off about House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy when he approached him on Thursday morning at a meeting of the House Republican conference. “He was kind of nervous and uptight,” said Huelskamp, the co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus. 

Huelskamp cracked a joke about the water pitcher and cups nearby, telling the majority leader that he would save the cup that McCarthy drank from, just like a House member did with the Pope’s water cup last month. “That’s the last thing he had heard from me," Huelskamp said. "He was probably was like, ‘Would this guy go away?’” 

Little did Huelskamp realize how important the moment would be: Minutes later, McCarthy stood up to announce that he would be dropping out of the race for House Speaker. Huelskamp should have been thrilled: The night before, the House Freedom Caucus had just endorsed long-shot Representative Daniel Webster over McCarthy for Speaker, sending a strong signal of opposition from the party’s right flank that ultimately contributed to the frontrunner’s undoing. But instead, Huelskamp said that he was shocked and angry about the way that McCarthy dropped his bombshell news with no advance notice. “I just thought that was a very strange way, and a very improper way to treat the entire Republican conference to pull something like that,” Huelskamp said. “He left everybody at the altar.”  

Even in a moment of pure surrender by the establishment, hardline conservatives were unhappy about the way it was done. For Huelskamp, it was far too reminiscent of other ways that Republican leadership has tried to blindside the caucus of late. “John Boehner did the same thing two weeks before that! Boom! Here it is—don’t tell anybody, apparently. I wonder about [McCarthy’s] staff. Did he tell them?” 

The House Freedom Caucus’s biggest demand from the next Speaker is that he or she reforms the internal rules and procedures of the House to give committees and individual members more say in the legislative process. “That’s what I tell people back at home, who are frustrated. ‘You mean, just because John Boehner didn’t like the way you voted, he kicked you off a committee?’ Yeah—he’s the dictator around here,” said Huelskamp. “We don’t need a dictator. We need a Speaker of the House who can involve everybody.”

But no one—not the House members walking to votes, not the reporters and staffers gossiping in the halls—seems to know who might be able to bring along enough of the right flank to join the establishment and govern the House. Huelskamp said names were being cast left and right in discussions the House floor. “There’s probably ten people who’ve picked up ten votes—I am not kidding. This is all wide open,” he said. But Huelskamp wouldn't share any names, other than ruling out “the Tom Coles of the world that attack us every day,” referring to the Boehner confidant from Oklahoma. 

Representative Devin Nunes, who's closely aligned with the GOP leadership, didn’t have a real answer either. “I think Paul Ryan is the only eligible candidate,”  the chair of the House Intelligence Committee told a reporter. But, the reporter noted, Ryan has already ruled out the possibility. Anybody else? “For now we’ll sit and wait,” Nunes replied, provoking audible sighs from the other reporters. 

Representative Bill Flores tried to put a more positive spin on the chaos. “There are people who are frustrated that they haven’t had their voice heard. I think if they feel like we can find a leader where they can be heard, I think they’ll be fine—I think they’ll come along side,” said Flores, chair of the Republican Study Committee, which was the conservative organizing base for the GOP until the Freedom Caucus deemed it too establishment-friendly. But when Flores was pressed to provide any names being floated, he demurred. “I’m not going to comment on that,” he said.

While some Democrats expressed glee over the whole debacle on social media, many of the members walking off the House floor on Thursday afternoon simply seemed frustrated and morose about the Republican Party’s crack-up. “I’m just afraid that the Freedom Caucus is going to be really emboldened," said Representative Raul Grijalva, co-chair of the House Progressive Committee. "They took down a Speaker, then prevented another one." Grijalva admitted that "it would be tantalizing to watch them twist in the wind," but said the stakes are too high to enjoy the spectacle: "We’re talking about someone who’s two beats from the presidency." 

"All their options are terrible," a Democratic aide told me, summing up the general mood. "The only good option is Ryan and he is too smart to take the job." He likened the drama to Ned Stark’s doomed fate as the hand of the King on Game of Thrones. Stark doesn’t want to take the job at first, “because that guy always gets his head chopped off,” the aide said. “They persuade him to take the job, and guess what? He gets his head chopped off.”

After McCarthy put himself on the chopping block, some of his supporters in the GOP conference wept openly and lined up to give him hugs of support. Huelskamp just left the room as fast as he could. “I was so mad I didn’t get lunch there," he said. He did not bother to take McCarthy's water cup as a memento.