Not long after bringing down the GOP’s second House leader in as many weeks, Freedom Caucus chair Jim Jordan boarded a flight to Israel. The Republican Party may be in chaos, and some of his colleagues sob openly at meetings, but Jordan was at peace.
“I hope we’re changing the way things are done,” Jordan explained over the phone from Ashkelon, Israel. “The fact is, 60% of Republican voters feel like Republican members have betrayed them. Look at the presidential election, look who’s winning. You’ve got Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz–altogether that’s 60% of the vote going to outsiders, agents of change. We’d better change.”
In the House of Representatives, the extremists are now in charge. A group of 40 or so very conservative Republicans has united to hold the chamber hostage but also risk another government shutdown or, perhaps, another ding to the nation’s credit rating. Where this is leading, no one knows.
The splinter group has the advantage of math on its side. Republicans have 247 votes in the House, where it takes 218 votes to pass a law. But if the GOP loses the support of those 40 members aligned with the Freedom Caucus, their tally falls below 218. And then nothing gets done. That leaves Republican leaders with a Hobson’s choice: either cut a deal with Democrats to take action or fight with one another. In recent weeks, the leaders have chosen the latter route, with Speaker John Boehner saying he could no longer handle the job and his chosen successor, majority leader Kevin McCarthy, bowing out of a race to fill Boehner’s shoes. The Freedom Caucus has taken control.
By itself, it cannot do much more. Caucus members see themselves as revolutionaries akin to the Founding Fathers. The tyrants they despise are the older generation of House leaders (meaning those elected before 2010). But their broader goal is to unhinge the party from any hint of moderation, or compromise, with Democrats in the Senate or the White House. And so compromising leaders, like House Speakers, must go. “Anyone who wants to run the House should realize that the authoritarian, dictatorial approach to the Speaker’s office has to end,” says Representative Mick Mulvaney, a caucus co-founder from South Carolina.
Mulvaney and his brethren want the House to run more like a business accountable to its shareholders, not the CEO. They want to gut the Steering Committee, which sets the agenda, assigns committee memberships and is the source of every Speaker’s power. They want committee assignments based on expertise rather than patronage, and committee chairs elected by their members instead of appointed by the Speaker. They also want the right to oppose their leaders and vote down legislation without repercussions: no more losing committee seats or facing Establishment-financed attack ads at home.
Yes, there are larger issues the Freedom Caucus frets about. They also want to repeal Obamacare, defund Planned Parenthood and stop Obama’s Iran deal and environmental and immigration orders. The House, by itself, isn’t capable of any of that. Which is why the internal House mechanics seem to matter even more; the caucus can at least try to change those. “People accuse us of causing chaos and turmoil,” says Mulvaney. “This is a change in a power system. It’s a change in an organizational structure. And they’re always disruptive, and they’re usually very sloppy.”
The caucus formed in January during a Republican retreat in Hershey, Pa., that was designed to bring the party together after the 2014 midterm elections begat open warfare between the Tea Party and the GOP establishment. “We’ll find some way to resolve our differences,” Boehner assured reporters then. But down the hall, Jordan and eight other members had other ideas. Jordan’s group soon expanded to more than 40 members, and the faction began blocking legislation. Mulvaney says the Freedom Caucus was originally going to call itself the “Reasonable Nut Job Caucus.” “We actually didn’t allow some people into the group,” he says, “because we didn’t want to be perceived as being outrageously crazy.”
Now the House is left with no clear leader or much prospect of finding one soon. RNC chairman Reince Priebus is nudging Ways and Means chair Paul Ryan to step in; Ryan has so far resisted what looks like a suicide mission. A number of Republican Senators are leaning on the former GOP vice-presidential candidate to take on the job. The clock is ticking too: the House in the next two months must pass a funding bill to avoid a government shutdown, a debt-ceiling increase to avoid a credit default and other measures to keep the country going. None of those bills look likely to pass without Democratic votes, and Nancy Pelosi will not sell those votes cheaply.
Boehner recently told his members that he’d had a nightmare in which he dreamed that he couldn’t escape the House. That may well come true if another Speaker can’t get elected. Or we could be entering a period of serial Speakers, each one a king for a week or a month before they fall victim to their members’ discontent. That’s a scenario Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a presidential candidate and behind-the-scenes Freedom Caucus whisperer, would relish. He has proposed conservative radio pundit Mark Levin for speaker. “Can you imagine the Great One as Speaker of the House, sitting down with [Senate majority leader Mitch] McConnell, going, ‘Mitch, we’re not going to do it,'” Cruz laughed.
It would be crazy, but these are crazy times.
This appears in the October 26, 2015 issue of TIME.