It was another political time and another political place a few years ago.
House Republicans had just elected Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., as the House GOP Conference chairwoman. Cheney would be the highest-ranking Republican female in the House.
A smiling Cheney appeared alongside other top Republicans at a November 2018 press conference in the marble, acoustically-challenged foyer of the Longworth House Office Building.
Her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, held the same slot as conference chairman when he was a congressman from Wyoming in the 1980s.
I asked Cheney at that press conference if her dad gave her any advice.
“He told me not to screw it up,” replied Cheney.
Everyone laughed. The snickering caromed off the marble floors and columns.
Some House Republicans may believe Cheney didn’t take her father’s advice. Others may applaud her for some of her recent stands. But either way, Cheney’s position in the GOP leadership is now in jeopardy. A senior House GOP leadership source tells Fox it is “more than likely” there will be vote on Cheney’s future when the House returns to session next week.
Internal House GOP rules require 50 of its members to sign a petition to make a motion to potentially change leaders in mid-Congress.
Cheney is the most senior GOP woman in American government and the third-highest ranking Republican in the House.
Fox is told that many Republicans were willing to give Cheney “a second chance” after a very contentious February meeting over the winter about her leadership role. Cheney survived a “no confidence” vote in the conference, 145-61.
One source told Fox, “She continues to raise issues with the former president” and noted that “if you’re out of sync with Trump,” you’re not in sync with the Republican Conference.
The Republican Conference chair is a position designed for “messaging” and “communications” within the party. But some rank-and-file wonder about Cheney’s messaging.
“When you have only so much time, she wants to talk about Trump, not the people who are running the country into the ground,” said one Republican source.
Other Republicans grumbled about Cheney and the recent Republican issue retreat in Orlando, Florida.
“It’s a problem if you have an issues conferences and the biggest issue which comes out of it is her,” grumbled one senior Republican who asked not to be identified.
Another Republican noted that Democrats are enjoying this battle because Republicans are wrestling with their own internal problems and not tussling with President Biden.
“We all need to be working as one if we’re able to win the majority,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Fox.
A Cheney spokesperson responded to McCarthy’s comments Tuesday, saying, “This is about whether the Republican Party is going to perpetuate lies about the 2020 election and attempt to whitewash what happened on Jan 6. Liz will not do that. That is the issue.”
There are always internal skirmishes between competing wings of political parties. Sometimes these are just flashpoints and internecine power struggles. Other times, they threaten to emerge as a full-on war.
With Cheney, a long, simmering battle between pro-Trump and anti-Trump Republicans is approaching a tipping point. This debate slashes through the heart of the GOP, touches on the assertion by former President Donald Trump that he actually won the 2020 election and curves through the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
Republicans just reelected Cheney to a second term in leadership last November.
But so much has changed since then.
The former president and others contend Trump didn’t actually lose. More than two-thirds of the House Republican Conference voted against certifying Biden as the winner of Arizona and Pennsylvania – only hours after the Jan. 6 riot. Cheney is one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach the former president after the January insurrection. As conference chair, Cheney is technically in charge of the issues conference. But Cheney didn’t invite Trump to speak.
“Kevin really helped her hang in that vote,” said one knowledgeable House GOP source about the February referendum. “Had he not intervened, it would have been a lot closer.”
And that’s why some Republicans are increasingly vocal about holding another vote on Cheney soon.
Here’s the problem for Cheney and other Republicans who demonstrated a willingness to take on Trump: former American presidents always hold a special status within the party. But the luster diminishes for those who lost after one term. Think of former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush.
However, Trump consistently defies political gravity. A chunk of congressional Republicans continues to embrace him. He keeps all other GOP 2024 presidential hopefuls on ice until he decides to run or not. There’s a sizable percentage of Republicans, both on and off of Capitol Hill, who don’t think Trump actually lost last fall.
Trump put Republicans on notice Monday.
“The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, know as THE BIG LIE!” said the former president in a statement.
Cheney rejected that on Twitter Monday.
“The 2020 presidential election was not stolen,” tweeted Cheney. She went on to say that “Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law and poisoning our democratic system.”
Many Republicans are afraid to cross the former president. Even those who were skeptical or once worked against Trump eventually jumped on board after they saw how he resonated with voters in their districts. And if the Republican Party still belongs to Trump, it’s obvious that the voices of Cheney, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., and Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, who voted for impeachment, face marginalization. The former president has lashed out at all three of those members, planning to incinerate them in Republican primaries.
And if you want to take this further, go talk to former Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and former Rep. Justin Amash, L-Mich.
Politicians make decisions based on, surprise, politics. The former president is still the most important figure in the GOP. McCarthy initially placed blame on the former president for the January riot. Then McCarthy visited Trump in Florida and softened his language.
Republicans stand a very good chance to win control of the House in the 2022 midterms. It’s generally believed Republicans will have to flip five seats to do that. Trump pledged to help Republicans wrest control of the House next year. McCarthy was all in.
Obviously, Cheney wants Republicans to win the House. But not by deferring to Trump. And, if Cheney represents a minority of the GOP and McCarthy speaks for a majority that happen to align with President Trump, you know where most Republican politicians will align.
It’s one thing for Democrats to duke it out with Republicans. But family battles are always more brutal. Look at presidential primaries each cycle. And, this fight over Cheney is where some Republicans eye opportunity.
There’s a reason why McCarthy didn’t become speaker when former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, abruptly announced his retirement in the fall of 2015. McCarthy lacked the votes and some Republicans looked for a reason to defeat him. McCarthy withdrew from the leadership race. The GOP anointed Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who originally didn’t want the job, as speaker.
Some believed McCarthy was damaged goods.
There was speculation after Republicans lost the House in 2018 that McCarthy might leave Congress. In fact, some suggested House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., may be able to defeat McCarthy in a leadership race. Scalise’s stock rose dramatically after he recovered from the 2017 baseball practice shooting. And Cheney’s stock went up after Republicans tapped her to lead the conference in the fall of 2018. The number of Republican women was dwindling in the House. Republicans liked the idea of elevating a woman. And, some Republicans embraced how Cheney matched up with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
But congressional Republicans coalesced around President Trump. The placement of Cheney in a leadership role worked for the conference just a couple of years ago. But political power is fleeting. She wouldn’t be the first political leader on Capitol Hill to see her support evaporate.
Some analysts viewed Cheney as a possible threat to McCarthy and Scalise. But no more. And that’s why some believe Cheney could face political peril. If that’s the case, look to see who may line up to succeed Cheney.
Naturally, Republicans may prefer a woman in the job, such as Reps. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., or even freshman Nancy Mace, R-S.C.
“But sometimes we don’t always do the right thing with women in leadership,” conceded one House Republican to Fox.
Otherwise, watch for Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., the head of the Republican Study Committee (RSC). The RSC is the largest bloc of conservatives in the House. Keep an eye on Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., as the vice chair of the GOP Conference. Also in the mix: Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-Ga., the GOP chief deputy whip.
This fight over Cheney and the core of the party will likely reach a crescendo when Congress returns in a week, if not before. But Cheney’s future will say a lot about the direction of the Republican party – and serve as a barometer on President Trump’s muscle.
Cheney hasn’t taken up Fox on an interview request.
One House Republican noted that GOP leaders brought Cheney into leadership a few years ago because they liked her as a “warrior.”
Now, House Republicans feel as though they’re warring with one of their own.