House Majority Whip Says Biden Had SOTU Outbursts Coming

Tom Emmer defends Republican behavior during Biden's speech

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (
February 14, 2023

A top House leader tasked with keeping Republicans' narrow majority unified is defending members who gave President Joe Biden a piece of their mind during the State of the Union address.

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R., Minn.), one of Speaker Kevin McCarthy's closest allies in Congress, told the Washington Free Beacon in a wide-ranging interview that not only were Republican outbursts warranted, but also the early days of the Republican Party's narrow House majority couldn't be going smoother.

"I don't think [members such as Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene] were viscerally angry. I think they were telling [Biden], 'You're not telling the truth,'" Emmer said. "And rather than just ignore it, take the high road, the president was actually trying to engage with them and make smart-aleck remarks back."

Emmer's reluctance to criticize his colleagues provides a window into the difficult balancing act he faces as whip, whose job is to ensure all congressional Republicans are on the same page when it comes to legislative priorities. Media networks gushed over Biden's remarks and chastised Republicans like Greene for their outbursts, which included calling the president a liar, and even McCarthy appeared weary of the conduct by his more vocal colleagues. But with only a handful of votes to spare, placating members in the Freedom Caucus is the only way for Republican leadership to maintain order in the House and make the most out of the new Republican majority.

Emmer said he has good relationships with other members that stems from his role as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. His time there allowed him to familiarize himself with the peculiarities of every district and the members themselves. In many ways, Emmer said, he worked for them.

Emmer views his Republican colleagues as "customers." Rather than issue top-down directives, as Democratic leadership did under former speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), members come to him with issues and priorities they want leadership to address. His open-door policy, he said, is keeping any internal drama from spilling out during interviews on liberal networks such as CNN. During the tumultuous speakership fight in early January, dozens of Republican representatives appeared on cable news airing out their dirty laundry. Now, Emmer said, they can simply walk into his office.

"If you come in here, we're like a small-town law office," Emmer said. "We need to know your business, but we don't discuss your business in public. What comes into this office, unless they give us express permission, doesn't come out."

House Republicans "don't have to like each other," Emmer said. Nor do they "have to socialize together," but they must recognize that they're part "of a bigger team."

If Emmer views his colleagues as customers, that raises the question of whether, as the saying goes, they're always right. The ultimate test of Emmer's management theory will likely be the debt ceiling negotiations.

Although Republicans are largely unified that a clean debt ceiling hike is off the table without some spending cuts or reforms, they are light on specifics. Some Republicans, such as Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), made headlines in January by implying that cuts to the Pentagon could be on the table. In an interview with Fox News, Jordan said that "everything has to be on the table" and suggested that the country should "focus our military spending on the soldiers and not having so many generals."

Emmer quashed that idea, saying, "It's been very clear that we will not be cutting defense."

"Will we be looking for efficiencies? Will we be looking for waste? Absolutely," Emmer said. "But when it comes to defense, we have been clear that we're going to make sure that our men and women who wear the uniform have the equipment they need to successfully accomplish their mission and come home safely. So I think it's really unfair to say otherwise."

What Republicans will look to cut, Emmer said, includes the massive boost in discretionary spending that came with Biden's first two years in office. Much of that new spending, Democrats said at the time, was meant to remedy economic hardship caused by COVID-19. Now that Biden has said the pandemic is "over," much of that spending can go.

Emmer believes the fight over spending will put the party in strong position going into 2024. Should everything go smoothly, Emmer said Republicans will have an expanded majority in two years.

"If we can get to the end of the year and say we've accomplished putting the country on a sustainable fiscal path and made sure our members, with their conservative common-sense approach, have put this country in a better place," Emmer said, "I think that will bode well for us going into the next election year."