WASHINGTON (AP) — The House Freedom Caucus has been on its best behavior these past few months. The group of about three dozen hard-right Republicans has a penchant for fighting with GOP leaders over tactics and strategy, and helped topple Speaker John Boehner, but it has played nice in the party’s drive this fall to cut taxes.
Washington’s agenda has shifted to the budget, immigration and other contentious issues — and that has set off alarm bells inside the Freedom Caucus, which fears being on the losing end as GOP leaders and President Donald Trump by necessity turn to Democrats to resolve those issues.
So on Monday night several members in the group, including its chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., threw a brush-back pitch. On what normally would have been a routine — but crucial — vote to send the all-important tax bill to a House-Senate conference committee, Meadows and about a dozen other Republicans held back their support.
The conservatives were trying to get the attention of House leaders, who were marching ahead with a plan for a pre-Christmas budget agreement that has the potential for dealing conservatives losses on immigration, health care, and money for domestic agencies and hurricane recovery.
“One person says disruption. We like to say we’re doing what we told the voters we were going to do,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, former chair of the Freedom Caucus. “That’s what we’re doing.”
The current situation is down in the weeds even by Washington standards, but basically is featuring a lot of back and forth about tactics on a set of temporary spending bills to keep the government from shutting down this weekend and later in December. Those bills would buy time for budget talks but also are being eyed by Republicans and Democrats alike as unstoppable vehicles to carry unrelated legislation into law.
Conservatives fear they’re getting set up to absorb losses at the hands of Democrats such as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has a track record of taking advantage of GOP divisions to win victories for her party.
The add-ons conservatives fear most include protections for young immigrants brought into the country illegally and a budget pact providing tens of billions of dollars in spending for domestic agencies demanded by Democrats.
Basically, the Freedom Caucus is threatening to hold back votes on the stopgap bills to gain commitments that it won’t get burned later.
“There would have to be some very iron-clad commitments on behalf of leadership on how this will be different than the last five years,” Meadows said.
Meadows, serving in just his third term, served as a genial GOP back bencher for his first few years in the House. But he stunned the Capitol in the summer of 2015 by moving to oust Boehner, R-Ohio. Boehner left under his own power that fall, but the Freedom Caucus then denied Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s bid to replace him.
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., emerged from the chaos. He appears to eye the group warily but has stayed on relatively good terms with its members, especially during this fall’s tax debate. But Ryan also backs a bipartisan budget deal as the only means to get increases for the Pentagon through the Senate, where Democrats hold great leverage.
In fact, some more pragmatic Republicans fear the current divisions inside the GOP could be tying the hands of party leaders like Ryan, driving them toward a shutdown showdown later this month.
For his part, Boehner unloaded on the Freedom Caucus, including Jordan and Meadows, in interviews with Politico earlier this year.
“He’s an idiot,” Boehner said of Meadows. “I can’t tell you what makes him tick.” The former speaker called Jordan a “legislative terrorist.”