WASHINGTON – Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6th District, has already deployed an arsenal of tactics in his new job of House Majority Whip, from gentle persuasion to physically keeping rebellious lawmakers in their seats in the House chamber so they could be lobbied by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Emmer is expected to keep GOP members in check in a divisive House Republican conference. He had an early victory as the House Majority Whip on Monday evening as the House passed a rules package that was drafted in part to mollify hardline rebels who forced 15 roll call votes on the election of a speaker for new 118th Congress.
But even that vote, 220-213, with just one Republican – and all Democrats – voting “no,” came at a cost. He worked the phones last weekend to make sure the rules package would pass after helping to end an uprising last week by 21 House Republicans who refused, time after time, to support McCarthy’s candidacy as speaker.
In the end, calls from an angry former President Donald Trump to several holdouts won the day for McCarthy. Yet it was Emmer’s new leadership office on the first floor of the U.S. Capitol that was ground zero for the efforts to quell the rebellion.
After the first balloting for speaker failed a week ago, Emmer and his deputy whip, Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., went to work. Reschenthaler said he and Emmer knew they did not have the initial votes to make McCarthy speaker, but “thought the issue would be resolved in a couple of votes.”
The whip and deputy whip began to corral dissident members on the House floor and had meeting after meeting with the leaders of the “Never Kevin” movement, including Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Scott Perry, R-Pa., in Emmer’s office. Sometimes lawmakers were also buttonholed in the hallways. An unpretentious, tiny room with only four chairs just off the floor of the House also provided a place where more immediate arm twisting could take place.
Not only did Emmer have to try to persuade McCarthy’s hardline opponents to come along, he also had to try to allay the concerns of more moderate House Republicans, including Reps. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., and Don Bacon, R-Neb.
Meetings continued through Wednesday and Thursday, until a framework of demands made by the rebels was drawn up Thursday evening.
“Tom and I were running on less than four hours of sleep each night,” Reschenthaler said.
The marathon meetings brought along some holdouts the next day, but not enough of them.
That led to an embarrassing failed vote late Friday and to a memorable moment on the House floor when Emmer and Reschenthaler moved to keep Gaetz and fellow rebel Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Col., in the seats in the chamber so McCarthy could confront them.
Emmer, a former hockey player, situated himself in the seat to the right of Gaetz, who was holed up near the rear of the chamber. Reschenthaler – a former wrestler – blocked that row’s exit to the aisle, three seats away.
Meanwhile, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., was implored to get Trump on the phone to speak to other holdouts.
The very public intra-party speakership fight presages the tough time Emmer will have holding the GOP, with its slim 10-member majority, together on key votes.
“It’s going to be like wrangling cats,” said Valeria Sinclair-Chapman, a political scientist at Purdue University. “Speaker McCarthy has a fractious majority.”
Emmer did not wait for voters to determine the size and makeup of the new House Republican majority before he plunged headlong into campaigning to win the job of majority whip. As the former head of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), Emmer’s job was to help the GOP win back the House from the Democratic Party. The effort succeeded, but the party’s slim majority will haunt Emmer, said Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie.
“He is just between a rock and a hard place,” Gillespie said.
She also said the 118th Congress is bound for “gridlock from two different directions.”
One, Gillespie said, is the GOP’s slim House majority, which allow any four or five Republican lawmakers to hold out until their demands are met. Another is today’s unique “age of polarization,” which will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forge bipartisan deals on key legislation.
Still, Reschenthaler said he believes Emmer “is the right guy for the job.”
“He is simultaneously a hockey coach and a small town lawyer,” Reschenthaler said.
He said Emmer’s experience as a coach has taught him how to motivate people, and as a lawyer he learned to keep confidences.
And as the former chief of the NRCC, Emmer “is very trusted when people talk about electoral concerns,” Reschenthaler said.
“He knows who is afraid of a primary and who I afraid of a general election,” and how a controversial vote might play out in either situation, Reschenthaler said.
To placate the hardliners that opposed McCarthy, a slew of concessions were made.
Some were in the rules package approved Monday evening, including the “motion to vacate” that allows just one House Republican to call a new speakers election.
Other concessions included allowing lawmakers to use spending bills to defund specific programs and fire federal officials or reduce their pay. The rules package will also make it harder for lawmakers to raise the debt limit and will creates a new Judiciary Committee panel that will focus on the “weaponization” of the federal government.
Other concessions were made behind the closed doors of Emmer’s whip office in a handshake agreement that included allowing the party’s right wing a critical bloc of seats on the House Rules Committee, which decides which bills can be considered on the House floor and which amendments may be offered.
Those deals continue to irritate some of the more moderate House Republicans. For instance, Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., wrote her constituents on Monday that she could not think of anything “swampier” than “brokering some back-room deal, hidden away from the American people.” The horse trading also sets a bad precedent, said Purdue’s Sinclair-Chapman.
“When every votes counts, there are all kinds of people who will want side deals,” she said.
And if only five Republican members withhold their support and the initiative attracts no Democrats, Emmer fails.
“The majority whip is going to have a tough job,” Sinclair-Chapman said.