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Freedom Caucus Requests Get Mainstream Attention

With Messer presiding over a near-empty chamber, the House approved a continuing resolution to keep the government running. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
With Messer presiding over a near-empty chamber, the House approved a continuing resolution to keep the government running. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republican Policy Committee Chairman Luke Messer sent a letter to colleagues Thursday proposing a series of conference rules changes, including diversifying leadership ranks and allowing more floor votes on amendments.  

Sound familiar?  

The second-term Indiana lawmaker’s proposal bears striking similarities to the principles rank-and-file conservatives say they want to see in their next speaker — particularly those in the House Freedom Caucus who are endorsing Florida Republican Daniel Webster for the top job. It’s another sign that members of the House GOP “establishment” — such as Messer, who is in elected leadership — are trying to find common ground with members once considered the party fringe.  

One HFC member, Republican Dave Brat of Virginia, called Messer’s letter “a really positive step forward with the rules changes our Conference needs.”  

“I commend Messer for having the courage to lead on this issue,” he told CQ Roll Call. “The letter is less about someone in leadership using House Freedom Caucus’ messaging as much as it is about showing that the Freedom Caucus is trying to proceed in a way that truly unites the Conference.”  

“I started sharing how a principle-based, member-driven process produces good public policy with state legislatures around the country,” Webster weighed in. “I’ve shared this vision with my colleagues in Congress since 2011 and the message is resonating.”  

Messer, with Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, will on Wednesday be leading the second meeting open to members who want to offer buy-in on an overhaul of the conference’s rulebook.  

The two lawmakers agreed to oversee the process in response to members’ concerns that a successor to Speaker John A. Boehner will not be successful if he or she has to work within the same system that empowers some individuals and constrains others.  

An ally of the HFC, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky griped to reporters in advance of the first rules overhaul meeting that he expected it was just a move to silence grumbles, rather than a sincere effort to respond to concerns.  

Messer’s memo could lend credibility to the effort in the eyes of Massie, Brat and others.  

The first rules change Messer proposes is to expand representation in leadership.  

“Almost 60% of our Conference was elected in the last 5 years … yet these new members make up less than 20% of our Elected and Designated leadership table,” Messer wrote. “If we want better outcomes, we should all agree that our governing structures must better reflect the diversity of our Conference.”  

Many conservatives have in particular pushed for speaker candidates to commit to diluting the speaker’s power on the influential Steering and Policy Committee, which determines panel assignments.  

Messer is also advocating for House GOP leaders to allow more bills to come to the floor under open rules, or at least make in order for up-or-down floor votes more conservative amendments — another concern shared by the HFC.  

“The U.S. House of Representatives is the People’s House — the place where America’s voice is heard. Yet … our House rules make it extremely difficult for an individual member … to force debate on even an amendment, much less broader legislation,” Messer contended. “Our institution will be much healthier if its people, and therefore, their constituents, feel like they have a stronger voice. The only positive way to accomplish this result is to open up the process, at least a little.”  

But Messer also made a dig at conservatives who brought down procedural rule votes and bucked leadership on important agenda items in retaliation for feeling silenced: Unless new governing policies are adopted that appeal to more individuals, “members are likely to continue working outside the system.”

The cautionary tone might have left some members cold. HFC member Mo Brooks of Alabama suggested he wasn’t entirely impressed with Messer’s letter, telling CQ Roll Call Friday the sentiment was “good on generalities, but lacking in specifics.”

What he lacked in specifics, however, Messer might be making up for in his insistence he isn’t trying to position himself for a bid for speaker.

“He received several personal text messages after his letter went out last night. But, he’s not focused on the speakership,” according to a source close to Messer. “He wants the next speaker to get on board with a new governing structure for the conference.”

The same source also mentioned Messer had told colleagues “both publicly and privately that the ‘who’ doesn’t matter as much as the ‘how'” — a sentiment with which many Freedom Caucus, Tea Party Caucus and Conservative Opportunity Society affiliates would wholeheartedly agree.

Matt Fuller contributed to this report.

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