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Hockey brawls to debt limit: Emmer wrangles House GOP votes

WASHINGTON (AP) — The way Republican Rep. Tom Emmer tells it, the lousiest job he ever had — he has a saltier way of describing it — was running the House Republican campaign committee.

But after having helped lead his party back into control of the House in November, the former youth hockey coach now must round up votes from those Republicans, as the majority whip, in order to pass GOP priorities.

Corralling colleagues for their support on the debt ceiling, spending cuts and investigating the Biden administration will be tough work for the third-ranking leader who has served in Congress since 2015. With Republicans holding only 222 seats in the 435-member House, almost everyone is needed to reach the 218 votes needed for approving most bills.

Just agreeing to elect California Rep. Kevin McCarthy as the House speaker took 15 ballots.

Emmer was a central negotiator in that effort, hammering out the side-deal to win over holdouts after endless meetings in his first-floor office at the Capitol. It was a crash-course for the budget battles and showdowns ahead.

A look at how the rough-and-tumble Minnesotan told The Associated Press he plans to tackle the job.

SPEAKER’S ELECTION AS HOCKEY BRAWL

Before joining Congress, Emmer was a lawyer and state legislator. Some of his most applicable professional experience, however, comes from coaching hockey.

When McCarthy failed to win the speaker’s race on the first votes, Emmer convened the holdouts in his still new Capitol office, so bare there are no pictures hanging on the walls.

“Good teams are always going to have differences of opinion,” Emmer said. “If you don’t let them express that, you are never going to succeed.”

Emmer told the story of a fabled hockey coach who would let players fight it out during practices — almost encouraging it, he said — much the way Republicans nearly came to blows on the House floor during the speaker’s election.

“You know what, these guys actually become closer,” Emmer said.

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BRACING FOR BUDGET BATTLES

Emmer is not part of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. In fact, some Republicans did not think he was conservative enough for the leadership post.

But he won his own internal GOP election to become the whip, brushing back two challengers. When it came time to broker the deal for McCarthy’s election, Emmer had to win over some of those same conservative holdouts.

One of the many key concessions McCarthy made to earn the votes of his detractors was a commitment to return to federal spending to 2022 budget levels. Cuts of that size would amount to an 8% reduction in domestic defense, veterans and domestic accounts — or even more, 17%, if the Pentagon money is spared.

The Republicans also agreed to aim for a balanced budget in 10 years.

From Emmer’s point of view, much of what was agreed to with the holdouts is “aspirational.”

“Some might criticize me when I say it’s an aspirational document because they think it’s more than that, and they’re right,” Emmer said. “Because we now have to hold ourselves to this.”

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SPEAKER BOEHNER, SPEAKER RYAN AND DEBT CEILINGS PAST

One of the biggest challenges Emmer will face is rounding up the votes for the coming debt ceiling showdown.

Congress is being asked by the Treasury Department to raise the nation’s debt cap so it can borrow more money to pay off the nation’s already accruing bills.

House Republicans insist they will not lift that limit without changes in the way the federal government spends money — most likely, cuts in spending levels. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in an Associated Press interview Saturday that she expects Congress will ultimately vote to increase the cap. But she said GOP demands for spending cuts in return for backing an increase are “a very irresponsible thing to do” and risk creating a “self-imposed calamity” for the global economy.

It’s a repeat from the battles Republicans waged last time they had the House majority, when then-Reps. John Boehner of Ohio and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin were the speakers during the Obama and Trump administrations. In those days the Republicans tried to curb federal spending, with some success, but also with failures that disappointed the right flank.

Those decades-old spending battles simmer on Capitol Hill, especially for conservatives, which is why the Freedom Caucus and others drove such a hard bargain with McCarthy during the speaker’s race.

“A lot of it was personality issues that have probably been driven from as far back as when John Boehner was the speaker and then Paul Ryan,” Emmer said about dynamics.

“And there’s just been a lot over the last several years.”

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SPARING DEFENSE CUTS

Republicans have different views when it comes to what spending to cut as they try to use the debt ceiling vote to extract their own budget priorities.

While some say they want to see all spending on the table for review, Emmer is among those who believe defense should largely be spared.

“The argument is if you go to FY22 baseline, it affects both domestic and defense — not under Republicans,” he said, referring to 2022 budget levels. “Republicans will look for efficiencies, they’ll look for waste. We aren’t cutting defense. We assured our appropriators and ask our House Armed Services Committee. That’s not what we’re doing.”

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THE BEST, WORST JOB

Having helped to elect the class of new House Republicans, Emmer now must help lead them.

The reason he didn’t like his old campaign chairman job was because he had to be the “attack dog,” as he put it, always on offense. He also had to provide quite a bit of customer service to the Republican candidates. He twice ran the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The GOP whip’s job?

“Contrary to popular belief, it’s a lot the same,” he said — lots of listening and lots of responding.

“The great thing about having 222 (House Republicans) is every voice matters,” he said. “So you respect everybody, you respect their opinion. Don’t have to agree with them. You don’t even have to like them. That’s not the issue. But you have to respect them.”

And so what’s the strategy for passing the debt ceiling or the spending bills?

“I’ll let our members tell you a plan,” Emmer said. “Our job is to make sure that once that plan is ready for primetime, we get it across the finish line.”

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