Their nickname around Congress is the “hell no” caucus – a group of Republican hard-liners in the House that is notorious for its blocking power.
But the conservative House Freedom Caucus played a crucial role in pushing the GOP health-care plan into the end zone in the lower chamber on Thursday. The group negotiated. It compromised. And then it helped carry the ball down the field on legislation that would dismantle key parts of the Affordable Care Act. Six weeks ago, these hard-liners stopped the bill cold.
They’ll probably never be called the “heck yeah” gang, but the Freedom Caucus – born out of the tea party movement – looks to be climbing the learning curve of governing. Like House Republicans generally, they’re adjusting from an opposition mind-set to one of a party that holds the levers of power in Washington and has to act on its promises.
That is contributing to a greater sense of teamwork among fractious House Republicans as they set their sights on the next big promise: tax reform.
“We learned to play as a team and work together. It’s a big moment,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma, who is close to the GOP leadership and has seen the Republicans’ internecine battles up close.
Observers caution it’s too early to tell whether the Freedom Caucus, which has roughly 30 members, will be more in step with the rest of the GOP conference on issues beyond health care. Reportedly the group is already working on tax-reform proposals so it can have input on the front end of the process instead of scrambling to react.
“We really only have one data point that suggests they are more focused on governing than they used to be,” says Matthew Green, a professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington and an expert on the House speakership.
And part of governing is learning to work with the other side. Caucus members – along with a lot of other House Republicans – voted against this week’s bipartisan budget to fund the rest of this year. Caucus member Rep. Dave Brat (R) of Virginia, says that if governing means continuing to run a $600 billion deficit, he’s not voting for that. He's also wary of potential Senate changes to the health-care bill.
Even so, says Professor Green, it was unusual to see the caucus involved in developing a compromise on the GOP’s American Health Care Act and then almost unanimously supporting it.
Road to a compromise
The compromise was initially drafted over the two-week April recess by Rep. Tom MacArthur (R) of New Jersey, who is a co-chair of the more moderate Tuesday Group of House Republicans. While at the beach with his family, he sketched out his ideas and shared them with Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin and Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows (R) of North Carolina.
The speaker pushed the talks down to the two members, encouraging them to work it out, according to Congressman Cole, who is not in the Freedom Caucus. A committee chairman who helped write the underlying bill, Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon, became the “indispensable broker” providing staff and expertise, Cole said.
The leadership “needed to push the discussion down into the bowels of the conference, because at some level, this was not just about policy,” Cole told reporters after the Thursday vote.
“There’s a lot of deep bitterness and very personal feelings … that needed to be worked through on a person-to-person or group-to-group basis, and really, leadership is not the place to do that,” he said.
What emerged from the MacArthur-Meadows negotiations was a compromise that allows states to opt out of two Obamacare requirements: federal minimum-coverage standards, known as “essential health benefits,” and guaranteed coverage of “pre-existing conditions." States, though, would have to take other measures such as setting up “high-risk” pools to handle these patients.
“We’re a states’ rights kind of group, so we all believe from our standpoint the more decisions that can be made at the state level the better,” Congressman Meadows told reporters April 27. The opt-out waivers will pave the way to lower premiums, said Meadows, and lower premiums were the key to his caucus’s support for the bill.
A contrast with recent past
Over the past couple of months, the North Carolinian has been a peripatetic sprinter in search of a deal – at the president’s resort in Mar-a-Lago, at the White House, in the House, and over at the Senate, where he says he has consulted with 14 or 15 senators.
But it was not long ago that Meadows was spearheading hard-liners’ efforts to partially shut down the federal government (2013), oust House Speaker John Boehner (2015), and derail the Republicans’ first viable attempt at Obamacare repeal in March. The caucus opposed it on the grounds that it was not a real repeal, and because of the rushed, closed manner in which the bill was drafted. At least one member quit the caucus over its earlier refusal to back the GOP's health-care bill.
Meadows’s actions might lead one to think of him as a hard-knuckled sort with a scowl, but he actually has a convivial personality, say those who know him. He wants to be liked – and understood – as evidenced by his willingness to talk with reporters long after the House chamber has emptied out after a vote.
“He is one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet,” says former Rep. Matt Salmon (R) of Arizona, who retired from the House at the end of last year and was a founder of the Freedom Caucus. “He just really has a good bedside manner.”
It might not seem like it, but Meadows believes in collaboration and wants to get to “yes,” Mr. Salmon says of the North Carolinian, who is in his third term and has a business background in real estate.
That doesn’t mean, though, that Meadows and other members won’t play hard ball. As in Donald Trump’s “Art of the Deal,” they’ll ask for much more than they know they’ll get, says Salmon.
On taxes, he says, they’re more likely to side with President Trump than Speaker Ryan. Most caucus members are supply-siders, who believe low taxes will be paid for by economic growth. Ryan favors a border tax to offset some of the cost of a tax cut, but Salmon says the caucus won’t fall for that “gimmick,” which will be passed on to consumers.
An epiphany for Meadows
Like many Republicans, Salmon says the change in the caucus – he calls it Freedom Caucus 2.0 – has much to do with the changed political fortunes of the party, which now controls both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
During the Obama years, “it was a lot easier to be the stop-gap, the brick wall,” he says. Now the caucus is realizing the buck stops with Republicans. They are the ones in charge.
Indeed, when asked on Thursday what had brought him around on health care, Meadows told a crowd of reporters:
“I think the epiphany is that this is a critical piece of legislation that we’ve been making campaign promises on for seven years, and if I can’t deliver here, I need to go home.”