President Donald Trump’s election was supposed to neuter the House Freedom Caucus, the band of three-dozen rabble-rousing conservatives who made their name vexing House GOP leadership and driving John Boehner into early retirement.
So much for that idea.
On Friday, the Freedom Caucus delivered enough votes to sink Trump’s push to replace Obamacare, proving it can stymie not only another Republican speaker, but a new Republican president.
It was not supposed to be this way. Trump’s election, along with the return of Republican majorities to the House and Senate, appeared to marginalize the party’s purist wing. Republicans elected their own bomb-thrower to the presidency; the bomb-throwers in Congress were expected to have his back.
But the failed health care drive made clear that if Trump wants to deal with Congress, he has to reckon with the Freedom Caucus. As does Speaker Paul Ryan and every other member of House, many of whom were left seething by their colleagues’ inability to get to “yes” on the Obamacare replacement.
The group launched just over two years ago and has repeatedly bucked Republican leaders, forcing Boehner and then Ryan to cut deals with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
“There were people were not interested in solving the problem,” Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), one of the architects of the GOP health care plan, said Friday. “They win today.”
Amazingly, Ryan’s old reality — a right-wing flank that tortures leadership on seemingly every big initiative — remains his new reality despite the GOP’s dominance. Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) at times attempted to broker a health care deal with the White House and even extracted a few concessions. But eventually, he and his allies withheld their support, effectively killing the measure.
In a way, Meadows seemed to recognize that the group’s resistance to the health care legislation represented a broader quest for meaning in the Trump era.
“Speaking candidly, this is a defining moment for our nation but it’s also a defining moment for the Freedom Caucus,” he told reporters Monday, four days before Ryan pulled the health care bill. “And so when we look at that, I don’t think there’s a more critical vote for the Freedom Caucus than this.”
Ryan pointed out at a press conference Friday afternoon that the caucus had enough votes to single-handedly kill the health care legislation, though slipping support from moderates also played a hand in its demise.
For now, Freedom Caucus members don’t seem interested in sending Ryan to the same fate as Boehner.
“Paul Ryan, he’s a very good man,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) “He’s an eloquent speaker. He is an excellent representative of the GOP conference as a whole, and I like the job he’s doing and I want him to stay as speaker of the House. And I’ve heard nothing to the contrary.”
But the caucus now will also have to factor into the White House’s thinking as it reengages with the Hill on tax reform and other major legislative efforts. Its members — all men — hail from across the country. They include Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), both of whom ultimately backed the health care bill. They also included some of the bill’s harshest critics, including Brooks, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Rep. David Brat (R-Va.), Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
Their influence began to come into focus as talks between the White House and congressional leadership began to falter last week. Meadows promised repeatedly that he had enough votes to sideline the Obamacare replacement plan crafted by Ryan and House leaders. So Trump began to court him.
Meadows and his allies trekked to and from the White House throughout the week. And when Trump traveled to the Capitol for a last-minute appeal to House Republicans, he singled out Meadows for some gentle pressure: “Mark, I’m gonna come after you,” the president said in the closed-door meeting, a remark Meadows later said he took as a jovial jab.
After the effort fell apart, bruising Trump’s image as a dealmaker and a closer, Trump resisted pinning blame on Meadows or his allies.
When asked if he felt “betrayed” by the Freedom Caucus, Trump responded: “No, I’m not betrayed. They’re friends of mine. I’m disappointed because we could have had it, so I’m disappointed.”
Trump said he hoped the episode would result in a “better bill” on health care later. And the group that derailed his first attempt took note.
“The Freedom Caucus looks forward to working with him,” the group tweeted late Friday.
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