The Republican congressman who made his name as the instigator of John Boehner’s ouster last year is set to take the reins of the House Freedom Caucus on Monday night.
And first up on Rep. Mark Meadows’ to-do list: Torpedoing GOP leadership’s tentative plans to take as long as three years to replace Obamacare.
The proposal “will meet with major resistance from Freedom Caucus members,” the North Carolina lawmaker vowed in an interview, calling it “the first big fight I see coming for the Freedom Caucus.”
“It should be repealed and replaced, and all of that should be done in the 115th Congress” — the two-year period starting in January through 2018 — and “not left to a future Congress to deal with,” Meadows added.
POLITICO reported last week that GOP leaders on both sides of the Capitol are coalescing around a two- or three-year repeal strategy, which would allow them ample time to come up with a replacement and give insurance companies time to adjust. The Senate is particularly keen on a three-year phase-out, though nothing is set in stone.
But during a retreat in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains over the weekend, Freedom Caucus members fumed at that idea. Most said they wouldn’t settle for anything longer than a two-year replacement process, the time frame both chambers approved last year in an Affordable Care Act repeal bill that President Barack Obama vetoed.
Meadows even suggested that Republicans could replace the law early next year, ahead of the fall enrollment period for 2018. Many leadership sources don’t believe that timetable is feasible.
Short of that, Meadows hopes the Freedom Caucus, which boasts roughly 40 members, will take a formal position as soon as January in favor of a shorter Obamacare replacement schedule.
“What you will find is there are some Freedom Caucus members who believe that the floor of what we passed in 2015 [the two-year plan] should be the worst-case scenario, but there are a number of other Freedom Caucus members who think we need to go beyond what we passed in 2015 and get rid of all the rules and regulations and be aggressive on that in” the first quarter of next year, he said.
House leaders will need Freedom Caucus votes for any repeal plan, since Democrats are expected to vote as a bloc against any attempt to overturn or weaken Obama’s signature domestic achievement.
The Freedom Caucus is approaching a crossroads as Meadows takes the helm. The group exploited divided government for maximum influence since its launch two years ago, regularly derailing GOP leaders’ best-laid plans. But the election upended that entire dynamic: Now, Freedom Caucus members, who pride themselves as strict being adherents to free-market, small-government principles, will have to decide how closely to toe the Donald Trump line.
Obamacare could prove an early test. Theoretically, the group could block a three-year replacement plan if its members vote as a bloc; Democrats are certain to unite against any effort to scuttle or weaken Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.
A strong Trump supporter, Meadows will replace Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the group’s founding chairman who willingly stepped aside to allow fresh blood at the top. In the fall of 2015, Meadows filed the motion to boot Boehner from the speaker’s chair, earning him detractors across the Republican Conference; even some Freedom Caucus members believed Meadows went too far. Boehner ultimately resigned before facing a vote on his future as speaker.
Jordan is expected to maintain some sort of leadership role in the group going forward. Of repealing Obamacare, he said, “The bigger concern is that the establishment is going to try to water down the good thing that the president-elect campaigned on, that (Freedom Caucus) members campaigned on… and not make them as strong as they should be and frankly what voters expected them to be.”
In an extensive phone interview, Meadows said he wants the Freedom Caucus to take more stands next year in support of legislation as opposed to simply opposing leadership’s plans. He said the group will hire a policy staffer to help craft its own bills.
“There’s a push to try to change the group to a more policy-driven” body, he said. “Much of what we’ve been defined by is what we’re against, not what we’re for. So we will see a real focus going forward on a list of 10 to 20 proposals that we are supportive of.”
Some of those include a series of bills limiting executive branch powers. Meadows wants the Freedom Caucus to back a bill to overturn “Chevron deference,” a Supreme Court precedent that requires courts to accept an agency’s interpretation of ambiguous laws. The Freedom Caucus also wants to give Congress jurisdiction over what it estimates is about $600 billion the federal government collects in fines and fees that aren’t currently subject to congressional appropriations.
The group is also crafting a bill to require the executive branch to write all rules and regulations pertaining to a particular law within a three-year window after it passes Congress, Meadows said. The idea is aimed at barring future administrations from re-interpreting decades-old statutes.
The proposal “would probably be the most far-reaching limit on executive power that we’ve seeing in a long time,” he said.
In that regard, Meadows said that while he expects the Freedom Caucus to be Trump’s ally on many issues, on others they could part ways. Executive power is one possible area of disagreement.
“We do anticipate push-back from the administration because we’re trying to limit their powers,” Meadows said. But “we believe it’s good policy going forward.”
The Freedom Caucus could also come out against an attempt to weaken a ban on earmarks, though it’s unclear whether the group can succeed if Democrats get on board. The effort, which Jordan called “just ridiculous,” is expected to come to the floor early next year. Meadows agreed it sends a “very difficult political message to the American people that we’re not as fiscally conservative as we are.”
Long-term, Jordan said the group is likely to push for so-called “cut, cap and balance” as part of a push to raise the debt ceiling. He introduced that during the last debt ceiling stand-off several years ago. It calls for cutting spending, capping it at a certain level and instituting a balanced budget amendment.
Meadows said the Freedom Caucus also plans to continue its push for entitlement reform. Trump has not signaled his desire to take on Social Security or Medicare, and has even criticized such reforms in the past.
“I think having the political will to try to address the hard issues … will be the role of the Freedom Caucus,” Meadows said.
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