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Q&A: New Majority Whip Tom Emmer is here to listen to colleagues, not bully them

By Jim Saksa, CQ-Roll Call
Published: March 18, 2023, 6:00am

WASHINGTON — Warm and cuddly is not the approach you’d expect from a former college hockey star who’s now in a position called “majority whip,” but that’s how the House Republican Conference’s new No. 3, Tom Emmer, describes his job.

“The whip’s job is to make sure that everybody is heard,” said the Minnesota Republican.

Emmer was referring specifically to the House GOP’s various factions on their proposal for balancing the budget, which remains TBD a month after Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters that Republicans would refuse to increase the debt ceiling if spending cuts weren’t included in a deal.

While the plan’s details are still being worked out, “I can guarantee it’ll involve the whole budget,” Emmer said in a phone interview with Heard on the Hill last week.

The former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman also engaged in some campaign shop talk, offering his thoughts on why the GOP is poised to retain an enduring — if small — majority in the House, and hinted at what lies beneath the suits he wears on the Hill and the hockey sweaters on the ice.

This interview, conducted before the collapse of banks in California and New York, has been condensed.

  • Q: President Joe Biden’s regulatory appointees have taken a skeptical approach to the crypto industry, and, as a Blockchain Caucus co-chair, you’ve said this is too heavy-handed. But given the ongoing fallout from the FTX scandal, do you think there is any appetite in Congress to legislate?

A: First off, they haven’t taken a “skeptical approach” — they’ve taken an absolutely hostile approach. They’re using the FTX scandal — which is as old as finance, Jim — as their excuse to go after good actors. What they’re really doing here is trying to blunt innovation in this country. But they’re not stopping it — they’re just sending it off our shores.

I think this administration and some of its (supporters), whether it be (Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman) Gary Gensler or (Sen.) Elizabeth Warren, they’re desperately afraid of losing their power to decentralized finance.

I think this is the right time to legislate because entrepreneurs want clarity, consistency and certainty. And we’ve got to expose this administration because, frankly, they’re going at this in the wrong way.

  • Q: You recently wrote an op-ed that began: “Execute the plan. Win.” You wrote that it was your approach to everything from coaching youth hockey to your position as majority whip. My question is: What is the House GOP’s plan for the debt ceiling and budget talks? Will there be enough time to negotiate a deal, especially given the House’s slow pace of legislating so far?

A: Every team that I’ve ever coached, first you’ve got to build a team, you got to get the team to work together, to believe in something as a unit, and then you have to have a game plan for whatever you’re going into — whether that’s the debt ceiling, the farm bill, the FAA reauthorization — and that’s what we’re doing. We’re in the process of putting that game plan together, but I’m not going to step on the speaker’s toes — he will ultimately make the final decision as to what that is, on behalf of the team, with everybody weighing in.

The test will be the debt ceiling and these major reauthorizations, but I think that Democrats and Republicans — all Americans — agree, you can’t survive spending $1.29 for every dollar that you’re bringing in.

  • Q: So, no plan yet, but you think there’ll be time to get a deal negotiated? Even though it’s been years since Congress has been able to complete the appropriations process on time?

A: I think the House — at least under Republican leadership — has a history of getting appropriation bills out on time. You’re talking about the fact that the Senate hasn’t been doing its job.

Look, the whip’s job is to make sure that everybody is heard … as a final product is put together. And I would imagine that (House Budget) Chairman Jodey Arrington is going to have something to say about that; Republican Study Committee Chairman Kevin Hern is going to have something to say about that; Brian Fitzpatrick on behalf of the (Problem Solvers Caucus) is going to have something to say; Scott Perry and his group (the Freedom Caucus) — they’re all going to weigh in.

Once the speaker signs off, you’ll have those details. I can guarantee it will involve the discretionary side of the budget, and, frankly, I can guarantee it’ll involve the whole budget. You got to put this spending curve back on line to balance, and I think Republicans were elected to do just that.

  • Q: You talked about getting all the GOP factions on board, but in the last handful of debt ceiling fights over the past decade, a pattern emerged: The House GOP debated among itself, while the House Democrats refused to negotiate. Eventually, the Senate struck a deal with the White House that the House had to take. Why do you think the pattern will be different this year?

A: Again, I’d argue that the whip is the facilitator. It will be the speaker that will set that tone. And to answer your question, the speaker has already said we’re not going to have any omnibus bills. He’s sending a message to the Senate: We send over our appropriations bills in a timely fashion, you need to work on them. You’re going to have to respond to those appropriations bills with your priorities, and if we have to, we’ll have a conference.

That will ultimately determine if this is a different Congress from others, if that happens. (Under Democratic leadership of the House,) it’s been “our way or the highway.” There wasn’t a lot of bipartisan work being done. Once it went to the Senate, it just sat there.

That’s what we’re trying to change.

  • Q: So, this time around will be different because Speaker McCarthy is going to send over the appropriation bills on time?

A: If you look at what’s happened so far, the Senate Democrats are already just waiting to hear what the White House wants them to do. It’s unfortunate, but hopefully they’ll be listening to the speaker as he continually makes it clear that they have to do their work this time.

Good governance groups (and) everybody who looks at this agree: You have to go back to actually having a functioning House and Senate if we’re going to make this work. Time will tell if we’re able to. But the good news is that we’re trying, and I think if we have some success, you’ll see some House Democrats start to join.

  • Q: You led the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2020 and again in 2022. You did better than expected in 2020 and then worse than expected in 2022. Why was that?

A: I don’t accept that (premise). We were the only ones who won in the political marketplace in both cycles.

In our case, we warned people for two years: You should not be measuring the drapes and expecting to win a majority based on redistricting. There are numerous times I told our members, and others, that this is not going to be the same midterm that you’ve seen before.

By the way, we were incredibly successful, if you look under the hood. We had a 7 percent higher turnout (in 2022) than the midterm four years earlier. We had more women, more minority communities voting for Republican House members than ever — it’s growing, but it just wasn’t enough at the end of the day to sway a big number (of races.)

Going forward, I think the years of the 250-seat, 240-seat majority, they’re gone. You went from 85 swing seats roughly — seats that can flip 5 points either way every two years — to about 51. The playing field has narrowed. And with that narrower field, a “big” majority is going to probably be 230 to 240.

I think Republicans are uniquely positioned to hold that majority.

  • Q: Speaker McCarthy reportedly told donors recently that the GOP would have at least eight more House seats in the last election if not for weak gubernatorial and Senate candidates dragging them down. What top-of-the-ticket races hurt your efforts, and what can the party do to avoid repeating that in 2024?

A: Look, it’s easy to point the finger back at candidates … and say this person ran a great one, this person didn’t. Ron DeSantis ran an exceptional campaign; we picked up four seats (in Florida). It plays both ways.

But the good news for Republicans is that Republicans are having a debate about how we expand our party. And our colleagues on the other side of the aisle? They’re doing just the opposite, which is why all these traditional voting blocs are literally leaving the Democratic Party. They’re not becoming Republicans, Jim, but they’re leaving their traditional party because it doesn’t represent them anymore. It’s become the party of Cori Bush, the party of Ilhan Omar … the party of the extreme radical left.

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Unless the more moderate Democrats stand up, speak up and fight to get their party back, I think you’re just going to see the Republican Party growing.

  • Q: But that’s the same thing Democrats say — just swap out Cori Bush for Marjorie Taylor Greene, far left for far right — that they’re set to win independents.

A: I mean, they’ve been saying anything for a long time. I get it — they’ll also call everybody a MAGA Republican. Eventually, you got to offer solutions and ideas to the American people. That’s what Republicans are doing, that’s what you’re seeing in the House. And if we keep doing this, we are not only going to get reelected, we will grow a majority, will elect a Republican Senate and have a great chance to take back the White House in 2024.

Quick Hits

You’re a big hockey fan. Who is your favorite player of all time?

Growing up, my idol was Phil Esposito, No. 7 for the Boston Bruins.

What was the last book that you read?

“The End of the World Is Just the Beginning,” by Peter Zeihan.

In politics, can the ends justify the means?

It depends. Is the result the one you intended?

What is your least popular opinion?

I can tell you what it was growing up: that meatloaf and cabbage salad are the primary food groups in my house. My dad, my sister, God rest their souls. Neither one of them enjoyed meatloaf, but my mother took care of her oldest by making it at least three or four nights a week.

What is one thing that your friends know about you that your constituents probably don’t?

Let’s just say: body art.

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