McCarthy Turns to ‘Five Families’ to Keep Peace Among GOP Rivals

  • Ideological groups given seat at House GOP’s leadership table
  • Party still faces divisions over spending, debt limit decision

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Speaker Kevin McCarthy is making an offer his fellow Republicans can’t refuse. He’s given five competing groups – some of whom almost came to blows during the drawn-out speaker’s race – a seat at the leadership table.

McCarthy has dubbed them “The Five Families,” a nod to New York’s major Mafia clans and popularized by the movie “The Godfather.”

McCarthy’s plan would be a marked contrast to the approach of his predecessors, particularly former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who held a tight rein on power, was heavily involved in setting the legislative agenda, and moved to quash disputes among the moderate and liberal wings of her party.

By giving the sometimes warring GOP factions more of a voice, McCarthy (R-Calif.) is betting he’ll be better able to navigate a five-vote margin and ensure major legislation isn’t shot down by partisan infighting. And the success of his speakership may rise and fall on whether his decentralized approach ultimately gives him the room he needs to maneuver atop a fractious caucus.

Each of the ‘five families’ aren’t only planning meetings among themselves and with conferences leaders but will each have a representative to the weekly Elected Leadership Committee, which is headed by Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.).

Graves said that the diverse views within the party came to the forefront during the speaker’s race, which was only decided after much drama and multiple votes.

Having the five groups on the committee will help “identity landmines” before a bill hits the floor, Graves said in an interview.

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), left, confers with Reps. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) and Scott Perry, (R-Pa.) during a vote on Kevin McCarthy ‘s (R-Calif.) race to be House Speaker .

Unlike the whip operation, which focuses on more immediate floor action, Graves’ committee looks several months down the road on broader issues like the southern border, energy security and inflation, said Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.).

“What we’re trying to do is get all of the different philosophical viewpoints within our conference together talking about the challenges that the country and the Congress face, in advance of when the deadlines hit,” Scalise said. “There are deadlines coming on certain things. You don’t want to wait till the midnight hour.”

Each caucus has a different mission and approach though there’s overlap among the groups.

The policy oriented Republican Study Committee includes three quarters of the GOP conferences and calls itself “a leading influencer on the right.” Further to the right, stands the combative Freedom Caucus, while closer to the center there’s the revitalized Republican Main Street Caucus, the moderate Republican Governance Group and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) chair of the Republican Governance Group, said he told McCarthy during negotiations on the speakership that any deal he made with a different section of the conference, he needed to make with his group and others.

“People think ‘what are they getting that we’re not getting?’” Joyce said. “This way we’re all getting the same thing.”

Strictly Business

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, said McCarthy had a picture of the Godfather’s Five Families meeting when the GOP groups met.

“It started every meeting with a laugh,” he said.

While the nickname stuck, not everyone is a fan.

“Did you ever watch the movies?” said Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry (R-Pa.), whose caucus includes some of the chamber’s biggest flamethrowers. “There’s some unfortunate endings for some of the family members, and we would not like to think of ourselves in that context.”

“For me and for many of us, it was never personal,” Perry said of the fights that erupted both publicly and privately when the new Congress convened at the beginning of the year. “It’s about doing the business, sticking up for the little guy at home.”

Perry wouldn’t like the comparison but in the 1972 Godfather movie, the fictional mob leader Michael Corleone echoes a somewhat similar philosophy as he plots a mob-style execution saying, “It’s not personal… It’s strictly business.”

Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), chair of the Main Street Caucus, said while there were “hard feelings” after the speakership battle, “the hard feelings were dwarfed by the deeper personal connections.”

“We’re talking more than we ever have,” he said. “I don’t know if that would have been the case had everything gone just perfectly on January 3.”

Several outside observers said having more members at the leadership table would be a shift in how the House operates.

House leadership under both parties has become “really more of a dictatorship over the past several decades,” said Maya Kornberg, a Brennan Center for Justice fellow who recently wrote a book on the dysfunction of Congress.

Kornberg said having more voices at the table will give rank-and-file members more say. “The more parties you have at the table, from an institutional perspective, the better,” she said.

It’s not just McCarthy who needs to communicate, but the heads of the caucuses as well, said Matthew Green, a professor of politics at Catholic University.

“What’s going to be important is not just McCarthy’s consultations with these groups, but can the groups keep their own members together?” he said. “All it would take is five members of the Freedom Caucus to just disagree and it doesn’t matter.”

Debt Limit Test

The ability of the Republican leadership to accommodate competing views and achieve legislative success will be tested later this year when lawmakers face a decision on raising the debt limit. GOP leaders are demanding spending cuts in return for raising the limit and avoiding the federal government defaulting. But there are differences within the party on the extent of those reductions and which programs would be most affected.

The Republican Study Committee has already put out seven broad policy proposals on how to reduce spending and increase revenues.

Debt Limit Proposals From House GOP Group Include Energy Changes

Several Freedom Caucus members are beginning to build support around specific proposals to decrease spending, such as a work requirement for federal assistance programs.

While Perry so far has been aligned with McCarthy on the debt limit, he wasn’t afraid to oppose him during the speaker battle. Even then, Perry positioned himself as a negotiator and eventually helped find a solution.

“What you find out is, is that you’re probably not that far apart,” Perry said. “It’s how you express it sometimes.”

The Main Street Caucus, which is currently in a learn-and-listen mode, will focus less on the day-to-day votes and more on major legislative packages coming to the floor in the next few months, like the debt limit, said Johnson.

The Republican Governance Group is preparing to defend members from swing districts if they break with most Republicans but support positions in line with their constituents.

“When somebody comes out and says ‘No one can vote for this.’ Well, that’s not true,” Joyce said. “Some of these districts have to have those votes.”

The bipartisan Problem Solvers, whose members are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, have a small working group focused on the issue. Fitzpatrick said the group’s governing philosophy is they’d “rather get 80% of something than 100% of nothing.”

Graves said one measure of success of the five families strategy is whether leadership can avoid a last minute train wreck.

“It makes a lot more sense to have these people at the table at the front end,” Graves said, “rather than finding out about these things after a blow up on the floor.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at; George Cahlink at

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