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Here are the ‘squads’ of Congresses past

AOC isn’t the first to have a lawmaking crew with a catchy moniker

From left, Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna S. Pressley hold a July 15 news conference, after the president tweeted they should “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
From left, Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna S. Pressley hold a July 15 news conference, after the president tweeted they should “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It started as a simple Instagram caption: “Squad.” Then the media and pundits got hold of it. “These four people in the so-called ‘squad’ … have done squat in Congress,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News earlier this month, clearly relishing the alliteration.

The four progressive House members in question — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna S. Pressley — have weathered insults and worse as they challenge their party’s leadership and feud with President Donald Trump. Their nickname is just one more thing to mock.

But the women are hardly the first lawmakers to form a group with a catchy moniker. Republicans go in for chummy alliances too, as a look at history reveals.

Here are some of the posses of Congresses past — and what became of them.

From left, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., laugh on stage during McCains stage walk through at the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008.
From left, Lindsey Graham, Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Joe Lieberman laugh onstage before the Republican National Convention in September 2008. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Three Amigos (2008-2012)

Who: Sens. John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham

What brought them together? More friends than political allies, they were united by their approach, which involved sticking a thumb in the eye of their respective party leaders. Sound familiar?

Republicans Graham and McCain got close during the 1998-99 Clinton impeachment proceedings. Their father-son-esque bond deepened over a shared sense of humor and military service. When McCain decided to run for president in 2000, Graham, then a congressman from the key early primary state of South Carolina, offered his endorsement because McCain was the only one who asked. Later, they teamed up to hammer President George W. Bush (McCain’s 2000 rival) over torture and to pass a doomed Senate immigration bill.

Though a Democrat, Lieberman shared with McCain a hawkish stance on foreign policy, particularly when it came to the war on terror. Both loved to think of themselves as political “mavericks,” as evidenced by Lieberman’s changing relationship with Democrats. He went from his party’s vice presidential nominee (2000), to seeking the party’s presidential nomination (2004), to losing his Senate primary while winning the general as an independent (2006), and then to endorsing McCain for president and delivering a speech at the Republican National Convention (2008). McCain even wanted Lieberman to be his running mate in 2008. Things got so bad, Senate Democrats wanted to strip Lieberman of his Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairmanship before incoming President Barack Obama intervened on his behalf.

So where did they get the idea for “The Three Amigos”? Disgraced Gen. David Petraeus has taken credit for the nickname, telling ABC News that he bestowed it on the lawmakers during one of their trips to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Where are they now? McCain capped his Senate career in dramatic fashion, with a last-minute vote to kill the 2017 Obamacare repeal and give the middle finger to his political enemy Trump one last time. He died of brain cancer the following year. Lieberman retired in 2012. Graham has ditched his moderate past and become a vocal Trump supporter.

(Courtesy Simon and Schuster)
(Courtesy Simon and Schuster)

The Young Guns (2007-2014)

Who: Reps. Eric CantorKevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan

What brought them together? Fiscal responsibility — no, seriously — and relative youth (if you can count two fortysomethings and a 37-year-old as youthful).

The nickname made its media debut in 2007 with a Weekly Standard cover package heralding the “Young Guns of the House GOP” and gained steam as Republicans tried to change the script in the Obama era. 

Cheesy or not, the congressmen leaned hard into the name, even making it the title of their 2010 triple-bylined book on conservative leadership. Cantor was “the leader,” McCarthy “the strategist” and Ryan “the thinker.” No time to say “Young Guns”? You could keep it short with just “YG.”

Where are they now? Every revolution eats its young. The same tea party surge the gunners nurtured would eventually come for them too.

Cantor was upset in a 2014 primary by upstart Dave Brat (who was defeated in 2018). Cantor is now a vice chairman for Wall Street investment firm Moelis & Co.

Ryan would reluctantly become speaker when John Boehner retired in 2015, before bowing out in the 2018 midterms as Trump cemented his hold on the Republican Party.

But McCarthy is hanging on as Republican minority leader, trying to carry on the Young Guns’ legacy in a party that has changed dramatically since 2007.

The moniker itself lives on in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s candidate recruitment and training program founded by the original trio.

A soft-toned black and white poster of the freshman House Republicans who have come to be known as the
This “Gang of Seven” poster was officially unveiled on the stage of the 1992 Republican National Convention. From left, John Boehner, John Doolittle, Scott Klug, Jim Nussle, Frank Riggs, Rick Santorum and Charles Taylor, along with reproductions of their signatures. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Gang of Seven (1992-1994)

Who: Reps. John Boehner, John Doolittle, Scott Klug, Jim Nussle, Frank Riggs, Rick Santorum and Charles Taylor

What brought them together? First elected in 1990, these Republican freshmen beat the drum against corruption and rode the wave of the 1992 congressional banking and post office scandals right into prominence. They were key soldiers in the 1994 Newt Gingrich revolution that gave Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

The gang played up their righteous-yet-rebellious image, sitting for a stylized photo shoot that drew comparisons to the swoon-worthy boy band of the time, New Kids on the Block.

Where are they now? None of them currently serve in Congress, but two of them would gain greater positions of power. Boehner would go on to preside over the House as speaker (2011-2015), while Santorum served two terms in the Senate (1995-2007) and ran for president unsuccessfully in 2012 and 2016. Boehner is now a cannabis lobbyist, and Santorum is a CNN commentator.

The Great Triumvirate (1832-1850)

Who: Sens. Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun

What brought them together? They weren’t exactly a squad in the sense that they were on the same page politically — but they were towering figures of the antebellum Senate “Golden Age,” when the chamber was considered a showcase for the country’s finest orators.

At various points, some of them served as senator, secretary of State or vice president. They fought during the 1830s nullification crisis, when Calhoun’s home state of South Carolina threatened secession over tariffs. The debate led to one of the most famous lines uttered in the chamber, when Webster replied, “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” Clay, the Kentucky Whig known as the “great compromiser,” was instrumental in hammering out the Compromise of 1850 over slavery and territorial expansion, meant to stave off a civil war.

Where are they now? Dead. The entire triumvirate would die by 1852, nine years before the start of the civil war they fought so hard to avoid.

A note on gangs

The gang of seven made our short list — but what about all the other “gangs” that have popped up over the years?

The short version: You need a heavy dose of publicity to hang with the squad.

The long version: Yes, gangs of every variety have made their mark on Congress, but for the most part they’ve been temporary bipartisan alliances, focused on neutralizing the ideological elements of their respective parties to push through legislation. That was the case in 2005 with the gang of 14, for example, which sought to avoid the nuclear option on judicial nominees, or the gang of eight in 2013, which — thanks in part to Graham and McCain — crossed the aisle on immigration.

With so many gangs of varying numbers out there, it’s hard to keep them straight. A tip for future groups trying to write their nicknames into history: Make it memorable.