Main Street Caucus eyes ‘pragmatic’ conservative wins
70-member caucus aims to influence Republican policy on debt limit, defense and farm bills and more
They call themselves “pragmatic conservatives.”
The 70-member Republican Main Street Caucus includes nearly a third of the House Republican Conference. After previous fits and starts, the caucus of self-described “serious legislators” reorganized last Congress to provide a greater voice for GOP members who are looking to get things done.
With their party now in the majority, Republican Main Street Caucus Chair Dusty Johnson of South Dakota and Vice Chair Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma said in a joint interview that their group is stronger and more influential than ever and prepared to deliver conservative policy wins.
“We plan to be involved in every major piece of must-pass legislation,” Johnson said. “Our caucus hates cliffs, we hate dumpster fires, we hate chaos. We aim to be the grown-ups in the room.”
“We're reasonable, sensible Republicans that are looking at good policy for the country,” Bice added. “The things that we're going to champion are initiatives that we can go back home and sell to our constituencies.”
Those constituencies vary, making the group’s determination to find common ground within the party all the more important given its slim four-seat margin.
Many Republicans in the Main Street Caucus, like Johnson and Bice, hail from solid red states and districts. Others, like Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, the former caucus co-chair, and California Rep. David Valadao are from swing districts that President Joe Biden carried in the 2020 presidential election.
The common thread, according to Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., one of the group’s executive board members, is constituents’ concerns and the members’ desire to deliver on those issues.
“People talk at you and with you. So you’ve just got to listen and then you bring those things forward,” Miller said. “We respect each other and, you know, if somebody falls down [in] the street, you pick them up. That's why I call us Main Street America. And this Main Street Caucus is really the true American people ... the farms, the people on the street, people going to work.”
Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., another executive board member, said the caucus includes members from all ideological spectrums and geographical areas. In Congress, they serve on different committees and focus on different legislative priorities.
“I think that'll be a strength for us, not a weakness,” he said. “I think it gives us the opportunity to build coalitions, maybe in places that other other groups can't.”
‘Ripe’ and ‘moving’
As major legislative issues and deadlines arise, from high-stakes negotiations to lift the debt ceiling and fund the government to routine but important policy authorizations like the annual defense bill and five-year farm bill, the Republican Main Street Caucus plans to have a seat at the table.
“We are going to talk about issues that are ripe and that are moving,” Johnson said. “And we're going to look at the pieces of legislation that are likely to hit the floor.”
Bice said the caucus will convey to leadership and other key stakeholders “must include” and “can’t include” provisions when bills are being debated. They’ll also study issues that have served as challenges in past legislative battles, like far-right demands for more work requirements on food assistance programs in the farm bill, and get ahead of potential solutions.
“This caucus is not a reactionary entity. We are forward-thinking,” Bice said.
The debt limit is among the topics the group has discussed in its early meetings. While they don’t have a formal caucus position yet, the members agree with the overwhelming sentiment among Republicans that fiscal policy changes should accompany any increase in the debt limit.
“We feel strongly that it’s only reasonable, responsible and appropriate to raise the debt limit while securing some commonsense fiscal reforms; $32 trillion in debt is not something that we should overlook,” Johnson said.
Like a majority of House Republicans, many members of the Main Street Caucus have never served in the majority. That includes Johnson, 46, who is now in his third House term, and Bice, 49, who is in her second.
The caucus also has longtime members who’ve been around for past legislative battles. Seventh-term Michigan Rep. Bill Huizenga, for example, led a caucus discussion about past debt limit debates when Republicans held the House majority, according to Armstrong.
“Every one of the people who's in there is an expert on something,” Armstrong said. “And I think as we continue to move forward, we will use our own membership to help educate the rest of the members.”
One of the ‘five families’
The Republican Main Street Caucus is one of five main ideological caucuses GOP leaders have dubbed “the five families,” a reference derived from the Five Families of the New York Mafia. All five families have a seat on what is known as the Elected Leadership Committee, which is Republicans’ main intraparty body for decision-making.
The other four families are the Republican Study Committee, the largest conservative caucus, with more than 170 members; the House Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly three dozen ultraconservatives; the Republican Governance Group, more than 40 members who are ideologically center-right; and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, equally split between Republicans and Democrats.
The Republican Main Street Caucus, whose membership overlaps somewhat with the other five families, does not like to be labeled “moderate.” Instead, members use the term “pragmatic conservative” to convey they support many mainstream GOP positions but are willing to cut deals to get things done.
At the start of the Congress, as Speaker Kevin McCarthy struggled to find enough support to secure the gavel, Johnson and other pro-McCarthy Main Street members helped negotiate with his holdouts in the Freedom Caucus.
“The delay in electing a speaker was unfortunate, but one real bright spot are the deeper relationships that were formed as a part of that process,” Johnson said. “Those relationships are going to help us govern.”
The Republican Main Street Caucus is affiliated with the outside political group, the Republican Main Street Partnership, but campaign and ethics rules require them to be separate entities and limit their ability to coordinate.
A prior version of the member-led caucus clashed with the outside partnership over priorities and disbanded. It wasn’t until last Congress that some members decided they ought to reorganize internally.
“It disbanded in a little bit of a fracture,” Bacon said. “And two years ago, I decided it would make sense to stand it back up because I think we need a voice of pragmatic, commonsense conservatives. And I feel like that voice was missing.”
Now, after laying the groundwork last Congress, Main Street Republicans have “a good voice in the conference that needs to be listened to, and I think it gives us a balance,” Bacon said.
‘Every single hour’
The Republican Main Street Caucus meets weekly on Wednesday mornings, but the members maintain what Johnson called “an almost ridiculous level of informal communication” throughout other parts of the week.
“Caucus members are talking every single hour,” he said. “This group has already jelled to a degree that is unusual on Capitol Hill.”
Armstrong said he’s surprised at how active the group has already been this Congress.
“There's a ton of meetings in D.C. that could have been an email,” he said. “And this is not it.”
The caucus has bylaws that govern its operations, but Johnson said “they are not as restrictive or prescriptive” as those for other organizations. For example, the group does not have a formal mechanism for adopting official caucus positions. Johnson and Bice said they expect if at least two-thirds of the group is comfortable with a policy it can become an official caucus position.
The Main Street Caucus has no formal plans to meet with Democrats, as its focus is on developing policy solutions that will best serve the Republican Conference. But in some cases, the group’s members acknowledge, that may mean working across the aisle to find consensus.
“We do need more conservative wins in Washington,” Johnson said. “We're also going to be mindful of the fact that we're living in an era of divided government, and the Republicans and conservatives are not going to get everything we want.”