Biggs take reins of Freedom Caucus at tough time for conservatives

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, in a 2017 file photo. Biggs, in just his second term in the House, has been elected chairman of the Freedom Caucus at a time when Democrats control the House and are aggressively pursuing an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. (Photo by Andres Guerra Luz/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Democrats have a 38-seat advantage in the House, where San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi has regained the speaker’s gavel and announced a formal impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

Three House committees are aggressively pursuing charges that Trump misused his office for political purposes and the president has fired back by suggesting that whistleblowers in the White House and Democrats investigating him may be guilty of treason.

It’s against that backdrop that Rep. Andy Biggs is taking over chairmanship of the conservative Freedom Caucus – a fight the Gilbert Republican says he’s ready to have.

“No. 1 is pushing the conservative agenda and working within the system that we have,” Biggs said of his goals for the caucus that he formally took control of Tuesday. “And the second thing is we want to realize, and we do realize, that the 2020 election is right around the corner and we have to get the majority back.”

One way to do that, he said, is by forcefully defending Trump.

“If we can get people to be courageous enough to stand with this president, they’ll win their elections,” Biggs said during a Tuesday podcast by the Freedom Caucus.

Skeptics say that may be a tall order for a second-term House member who is leading a hard-right caucus in a Democrat-controlled House.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario where he has much of an impact at all,” Arizona State University political science Professor Dave Wells said of Biggs’ chairmanship.

Wells noted that the caucus was “fairly notorious” for getting its way in the past by withholding votes when Republicans controlled the House, bucking the leadership of then-speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. The caucus loses much of that leverage with a Republican minority in the House, he said.

“This is practically an extreme right-wing group,” Wells said of the caucus. “He’s representing a very extreme end of conservatism.”

But others note Biggs’ longer political history, with political analyst Jason Rose saying Biggs’ time as Arizona Senate president from 2013 to 2017 shows he has the “practical governance experience” to lead.

“He was a highly respected president of the state Senate, and so I think it again shows his political talent … and trajectory that he was able to establish himself on the federal level, much as he did in the state level so quickly,” Rose said.

Biggs was elected the third chairman of the Freedom Caucus last month, succeeding Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and founding chairman Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. The conservative caucus believes in limited government, fiscal conservatism and “the Constitution and the rule of law,” according to its Facebook page.

It does not publish a list of members, but most observers think there are a little more than 30 lawmakers in the caucus – including all four Arizona House Republicans.

-Cronkite News video by Heather Cumberledge

Biggs is realistic about the challenges the caucus faces in the Democrat-controlled House.

“We continue to work across the aisle in that way, but by and large, we don’t have the votes,” Biggs said. “The majority controls the votes, they get to control everything from the rules to the outcome and that’s what people need to always remember.”

And moderation has not been part of the caucus’ history.

In the podcast with Meadows this week, Biggs recalled being a freshman and getting a “20 minute, swear-word-filled tongue-lashing for even considering joining the Freedom Caucus” from a GOP member of House leadership. He said the caucus’ brand is tied up in its support for Trump, who sees them as “the first to have his back and the last to have his back.”

Trump on Sunday tweeted thanks to Meadows for being “an EXCELLENT Chairman of the House @FreedomCaucus, which has been a tremendous success. I am looking forward to close collaboration with his successor (starting Tuesday) and Strong Leader, @RepAndyBiggsAZ!”

Biggs didn’t wait until he was chairman to back Trump. He introduced a measure last week to censure House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., for “a false retelling of the conversation” between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump is accused of asking for political favors.

By Wednesday, that resolution had attracted 29 co-sponsors, almost all of them caucus members.

Biggs said he also hopes to use his chairmanship to advance Arizona issues, something he said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, has been able to do as chairman of the conservative Congressional Western Caucus.

Rose notes that Arizona lawmakers have had outsized influence on both sides of the aisle: In addition to Biggs and Gosar, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, was co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus until this year.

Wells said the fact that all four Arizona House Republicans are part of the Freedom Caucus shows how conservative the state’s Republican Party has become. He said “roughly 1 in 6 Republicans” overall are Freedom Caucus members, which means “Arizona has a disproportionate share as Republican members” who belong.

Fellow Arizona Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko, of Peoria, said she thinks Biggs’ election is good for the state.

“I think that having Biggs as the chairman of the Freedom Caucus really does a lot of good for Arizona, because it brings national attention to the state … and so I think it gives a really good spotlight for Arizona,” she said.

Despite the partisan nature of the caucus, Heritage Action for America spokesman Noah Weinrich said Biggs will still be able to work with Democrats – while fighting the conservative fight.

“Their job when they are there, regardless of how many people are in the party, is to fight for the right laws and represent their constituents well,” Weinrich said. “Whether they’re in the majority or the minority, they are going to do good work and they are going to fight for conservative causes.”

Politics Reporter, Washington, D.C.
Studio Production, Phoenix

Heather Cumberledge plans to graduate in December with a major in broadcast journalism and a minor in global studies. She has previously worked as a broadcast reporter for Cronkite News in Washington, D.C., and is now a part of the television and graphics team in Phoenix. She also is a politics intern for ABC15 and a digital producer for the State Press.