McCarthy knows as well as anyone that the Freedom Caucus made its name by undercutting GOP leaders, having seen his own path to the speakership blocked in 2015 in part by some of its members. Things are different these days, with the California Republican on an apparent glide path to the speaker’s gavel after years of courting his conservatives.
The race to replace Katko on the committee, then, may be as much of a test of how aggressively the Freedom Caucus pushes for more power as it is of McCarthy’s willingness to appease the right.
The final decision is a long way off, made by a GOP steering panel typically stocked with leadership allies, but Republicans are already jockeying to succeed Katko on Homeland Security. While Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) no longer serves on the panel, the new Freedom Caucus chief previously ran against Katko for the top committee spot in 2020 and now he says he will be “honored if I’m considered again.”
Two other current members of the Trump-aligned Freedom Caucus currently serve on the panel and are also laying the groundwork for their bid: Reps. Clay Higgins (R-La.) and Dan Bishop (R-N.C.). So far, Rep. Michael Guest (R-Miss.) is the only rank-and-file member outside of the conservative group who’s seeking the role. The veteran prosecutor said he’s already spoken to McCarthy to express interest.
“I will tell you that I was encouraged in the meeting because [McCarthy] also recognized the fact that my background would be the type of background that would be very good for Homeland Security,” Guest said, adding that his experience “would hopefully work for some sort of smooth transition as Katko retires, if I was able to take over the committee.”
“But you know, that’s a long way off,” he added.
The Freedom Caucus is not currently making a concerted push for members to get the Homeland Security gavel, but that could change; prominent members said they want to see more of their own involved in party leadership roles.
“I personally would love to see more conservatives at the table,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), a founding member of the group. “If you look at the numbers, we make up a sizable part of the conference. And if we’re asking for a seat at the table or our voices to be heard — that’s just normal.”
First-term lawmaker Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), a Freedom Caucus board member, echoed Duncan and argued that leadership roles shouldn’t be based on seniority.
“I don’t think that it should be seniority-driven. That’s not how I got here,” Boebert said. “I didn’t work my way up the ladder or wait my turn to have a seat in Congress. And I don’t think that Congress should operate that way either.”
Multiple Republicans stressed the importance of seniority as the conference weighs its committee leaders, but House GOP history is replete with cases of the leadership-allied Steering panel advancing rank-and-file members over more conservative rabble-rousers. Roughly two years ago, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) snagged the top Oversight Committee role rather than four Freedom Caucus members who had panel seniority, though at least one had also chafed leadership in the past.
Following Katko’s retirement, Higgins would be the next most-senior eligible Republican on the dais after Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who’s already the party’s top member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and term-limited out of contention. After that, Guest would be the second most-senior contender, followed by Bishop.
When asked about his bid in the context that Freedom Caucus members have been previously passed over, Higgins replied: “I am not necessarily the description of the kind of fella that would normally ascend to a position like that within this body, but I am exactly the kind of fella that America needs in a chair right now. I’m a boots-on-the-ground, actual cop.”
As McCarthy and his allies weigh Katko’s successor on the committee, they can look to one prominent example of a Freedom Caucus member who came into their fold: Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a co-founder of the famously combative group. While members of the Steering panel warned McCarthy about installing Jordan as the party’s top Oversight panel member in 2018, the Ohioan has since won over McCarthy and the Steering panel naysayers.
Lately Jordan, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, serves as an informal intermediary between the Freedom Caucus and leadership. And Jordan is rooting for Bishop to ascend on Homeland Security, saying that he plans to advocate for it to McCarthy.
Bishop pointed to Jordan’s rise from leadership antagonist to McCarthy ally as a template he’d like to follow.
“It is important to be on the team, but push the team in order to do the right things,” Bishop said in an interview.
While Jordan has McCarthy’s ear, it’s unclear how much he can help Bishop, one of his closest friends in the House. The North Carolinian may have alienated some Steering panel members by calling for Katko to be removed from the Homeland Security committee’s top GOP spot last year during a short-lived Freedom Caucus-driven push to punish the retiring centrist for a series of bipartisan votes he took this Congress.
Different members of the current Steering panel had varying views on the state of the playing field and favored different Katko successors when asked: Some said they see Guest as the best; others said Guest, Perry and Higgins are all on even footing. Some didn’t like that Higgins suggested, in a letter after Katko’s retirement announcement, that he planned to run for the role whether or not Katko stuck around.
If Perry were to get the party’s top Homeland Security role, some colleagues privately fear that his more radical views could do serious damage to the panel. Though others predicted he could balance the Freedom Caucus chair role with committee work, given that both positions focus on border security.
And several Republicans suggested that, should Perry pull a Jordan-style move of his own and convince McCarthy he can stay on side while leading the party on Homeland Security, that could deliver the GOP leader a big get: a cooperative House Freedom Caucus chair.