When House Speaker Paul D. Ryan pulled the plug on the GOP’s Obamacare overhaul, lawmakers spilled out of the Capitol basement, angry, frustrated and stunned.
But Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), leader of the conservative and rebellious House Freedom Caucus that led the fight against the bill, was uncharacteristically quiet, downplaying his political victory and mulling over the next move.
After coming together to battle President Obama and becoming a driving force in the Republican Party, this 30-member-plus bloc of deficit hawks and right-flank conservatives had appeared for a while to be pushed aside by the movement that swept President Trump into office.
But after helping defeat the GOP healthcare overhaul, the Freedom Caucus has roared back to relevance as a political power in the Trump era. It has reasserted itself as not just a renegade assemblage of mostly back-bench lawmakers, but as a core block of votes that Trump will need to push past the healthcare debacle to tax reform, budget battles and other issues.
“These guys saved the Republicans,” said Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, a group that organized a North Carolina rally on Monday in honor of Meadows. “As beaten and battered as they are, we’ve got a group that’s willing to take the hard decisions. If you’re going to drain the swamp, these are the guys who are going to do it.”
Perhaps unintentionally, the White House opened the door for the group’s resurgence by allowing the Freedom Caucus to bypass Ryan and negotiate directly with Trump on the healthcare bill, even though the president in the end failed to close the deal with them.
Fellow GOP lawmakers — accustomed to battling the Freedom Caucus over spending bills, the debt ceiling and the ouster of former House Speaker John A. Boehner — are now blaming the group for botching the party’s best chance to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
The blowback reached a peak over the weekend as Trump tweeted critically about the group, essentially accusing them of helping Democrats.
For some members, the fallout has been difficult, especially because, as the most conservative lawmakers, they largely come from red districts Trump won handily.
It was one thing to confront a Democratic president or even to defy GOP leaders in Washington. But as shown by Meadows’ reluctance to take a victory lap, going head-to-head with Trump carries greater risk.
Already one member, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), has quit the group in the aftermath of the health fight, complaining that the caucus knows only how to oppose initiatives, not to build them.
Other Republicans and some in the White House have wondered whether it is time to leave the right flank behind and start working with Democrats to advance shared goals.
Caucus members have been careful not to gloat since the healthcare clash, blaming the bill’s failure on GOP moderates and the party’s leaders, but never Trump, despite his missives against them.
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) was careful to praise Trump repeatedly during an interview Monday on CNN. Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio said he would welcome Trump to visit his district. Meadows and others say they still want to work with the president to craft a healthcare bill.
They may have their chance. “We still have a promise to keep, so the speaker wants members to continue discussing this issue until we can find a path ahead,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said Monday after the speaker visited the White House.
The return of the Freedom Caucus has forced some soul-searching among the Republican majority that controls the House and Senate, and it has left the White House to wonder whether Trump should continue to negotiate with them or look elsewhere for votes.
Some Republicans have suggested they start working more closely with moderate Democrats, a case made by Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), a Trump ally who is co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, during a weekend interview on National Public Radio.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday the administration’s strategy and future alliances would “depend on the legislation.”
“We’re going to work with anybody who wants to work with us on achieving the goals the president set out,” Spicer said.
Of course it wasn’t just the caucus that doomed the healthcare overhaul, the American Health Care Act, which was also panned by centrist Republicans.
But after Republicans’ repeated battles with the rebellious caucus over the years, patience has grown thin. There is a growing realization that the group’s unwillingness to bend on conservative principles often leaves it unable to compromise to pass legislation.
“They’d vote ‘no’ against the Ten Commandments if it came up for a vote,” Poe said on CNN. “So I’m angry about that. I think it’s time we lead and continue not to say ‘no’ on everything that takes place when bills come forward.”
The White House also appears to have gained some experience in dealing with the bloc. Administration officials came to see the members as moving the goal post during final hours of negotiations and making new demands. “They understand what they’re working with now,” one GOP source said.
The caucus has never been popular among rank-and-file Republicans, and slipped from prominence after they forced Boehner into early retirement in late 2015.
Ryan for a time had been able to work around the restive bloc, in part because Congress undertook few serious legislative lifts that required direct confrontation with the most conservative among them.
But as Ryan and the White House watched their hopes of quickly overhauling Obamacare slip amid Republican infighting, they brought Meadows and others to the bargaining table to negotiate.
Meadows and his allies took on starring roles in talks over the American Health Care Act, at one point whisking off to Mar-a-Lago, the president’s Florida resort, where he had retired for the weekend, to work directly with White House aides on the bill.
To many, the ability of the Freedom Caucus to leave the sidelines and negotiate directly with the president “changed the status quo,” said a GOP aide familiar with the group who requested anonymity to assess the situation. “Negotiating with the president? That’s a game changer.... That’s a huge, huge symbolic and strategic victory.… I think they’re stronger than ever coming out of this.”
But whether Trump will continue to court the group as he pursues a tax deal and his budget remains to be seen. A clue will come next month when Congress will need to pass a spending bill to avert a government shutdown after April 28.
As Republicans begin to tackle the next big agenda item — tax reform — Meadows appeared to offer an overture toward compromise when he suggested that tax cuts would not need to be strictly “revenue-neutral,” or fully offset with spending reductions elsewhere.
But the chairman’s offer is not one that all members of the caucus share, so his ability to bring along about 30 votes on that would not be guaranteed.
After the healthcare battle, rank-and-file Republicans have little patience with the caucus.
“A handful of ideologues are locking up the will of most of the country,” Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) said. “They have a propensity for ‘no’ and they find a way to get to ‘no.’”
Staff writer Brian Bennett contributed to this report.