Republican infighting consumed the Capitol Thursday, drowning out last-ditch attempts by GOP leaders to salvage their failed attempt to replace Obamacare and threatening to sharpen the divisions that sank it in the first place.
President Donald Trump threatened to drive hard-line conservatives from office after they led the opposition to his health care push. Then he got personal, singling out three top antagonists for being particularly resistant to his agenda.
“If @RepMarkMeadows, @Jim_Jordan and @Raul_Labrador would get on board we would have both great healthcare and massive tax cuts & reform,” he tweeted to his 27 million followers, naming the three leaders of the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus. He taunted them a second time immediately after.
In return for his earlier, more general threat to challenge Freedom Caucus members in 2018, one of them, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), accused the president of becoming a creature of Washington.
That wasn’t all: Speaker Paul Ryan warned that the GOP health care stalemate could drive Trump to work with Democrats. A Republican senator accused Ryan of badmouthing bipartisanship.
The crossfire left a sour taste for lawmakers as they left town for the weekend without resolving any of the differences that ruptured health care deliberations the week before.
“You know, the great tendency in politics today is to, in frustration, go after each other rather than the fundamental dynamics that are causing the problem,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who decried the GOP bent toward “cannibalization” that led Trump to attack conservatives.
Trump, furious that his onetime allies helped undermined his effort to replace Obamacare and landed an ego-bruising blow on the president’s ability to close deals, began the fracas. He suggested on Twitter that he might support primary challengers for members of the House Freedom Caucus, the bloc of three dozen ultraconservatives who — along with wary moderates — banded together to help sink the health care push. Trump promised to “fight” Freedom Caucus members in 2018 if they don’t “get on the team, & fast.”
His slap led Amash to deliver a stinging retort: “It didn’t take long for the swamp to drain @realDonaldTrump,” he tweeted. “No shame, Mr. President. Almost everyone succumbs to the D.C. Establishment.”
Other Freedom Caucus members reacted with a mix of anger, dismay and indifference to Trump’s threat.
“The way to get votes is not to name call,” said Rep. Mo Brooks, a Freedom Caucus member from Alabama. “The way to get votes is to have better legislation that better reflects the will of the American people.”
Hours after Trump lashed out at the group, Ryan mused that Trump was merely venting “frustration” with the lack of progress on Obamacare repeal. The Wisconsin Republican expressed sympathy with Trump, saying at a news conference that “90 percent” of the House GOP Conference was for the bill — and only a small fraction blocked its passage.
It was a different tenor than the one Ryan struck during a closed-door conference meeting Tuesday, when he urged lawmakers not to take out their anger on the Freedom Caucus. On Thursday, he did not push back against the president’s veiled threat against the group.
“I understand the president’s frustration. I share his frustration,” he said. “It’s very understandable that the president is frustrated that we haven’t gotten where we need to go, because this is something we all said we would do.”
But Ryan himself drove some of the intraparty sniping as well. Earlier in the morning, in an interview on CBS, he fretted that Republicans’ inability to unite around core agenda items could “push the president into working with Democrats,” an outcome he made clear would lead to poor results.
“[I]f this Republican Congress allows the perfect to be the enemy of the good, I worry we’ll push the president into working with Democrats,” Ryan said. “He’s been suggesting that as much.”
The remark provoked a sharp response from the other side of the Capitol, where Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), lamented Ryan’s rejection of bipartisanship.
“We have come a long way in our country when the speaker of one party urges a president NOT to work with the other party to solve a problem,” Corker tweeted.
Trump’s scrape with the Freedom Caucus is precarious for his legislative ambitions. He either needs to rally its members around his agenda or negotiate with moderate Democrats — and now he’s placed both groups in his cross hairs.
Freedom Caucus members said they hoped the breach with Trump wasn’t permanent.
“I think we can get along with the president,” Franks said. “I think we’re the best friends the president has in this situation … I think Congress failed the president rather than the other way around and I can understand his frustration.”
Other simply shrugged off Trump’s remark.
“It really doesn’t do anything to me,” said Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.). “We’re going to keep doing what we do because we all believe in what we do. I don’t know why he’s threatening us.”
The infighting is occurring as top lawmakers are making overtures to colleagues in an attempt to resuscitate the health care talks. Lawmakers are unclear about the impact Trump’s tweeting will have on those delicate discussions.
“I think the Freedom Caucus brings a lot to the table and we are looking to have or get to a place where a majority of those guys are supportive of the final product,” said Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of about 150 mainstream House conservatives. “Whether some guys feel pressured by [Trump’s tweet] or it emboldens others, maybe the answer is both.”
Walker suggested that not all Freedom Caucus members should be viewed equally: Some of them, like Alabama Rep. Gary Palmer, backed the health care legislation. But Walker, too, indicated that some recalcitrant lawmakers may have the wrong motivations.
“There are times,” he said, “when there are people who are more concerned about the attention than the cause.”
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