“In my opinion, just speaking candidly, this is a defining moment for our nation,” Rep. Mark Meadows, chair of the deeply conservative House Freedom Caucus, said Monday night. “But it’s also a defining moment for the Freedom Caucus.”
The three dozen or so members of the group, joined by Sens. Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, had just met for more than an hour in a Capitol complex seemingly occupied by only them and a couple dozen reporters waiting in the hallway. For a group that is under extraordinary pressure to support President Donald Trump’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare—a type of political strain to which most of them have never been subjected—they seemed to be having a jolly time. Loud bursts of laughter, occasionally accompanied by table banging, erupted regularly from within the room where members were dining on pizza. They were there to decide whether they would kill the first major legislative endeavor from the new Republican president and his partner on the Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan.
The Freedom Caucus, founded in early 2015, had never previously existed under a Republican president. It had never existed under a unified Republican government, until now. All the drama that this group and a broader class of far-right conservatives had managed to create since Republicans took control of the House in 2011 had been during Barack Obama’s administration, when enactment of ideological conservative goals was never a possibility. This is a defining moment for the Freedom Caucus. If its members show themselves willing to cave on a bill that few of them like in deference to a Republican president’s agenda, then the Freedom Caucus has proven itself to be a pushover and virtually neutered. And if they don’t give in, the governing party of which they are suddenly a part will show itself to be a failure in its first test, and its longtime promise to the party’s staunchest supporters of abolishing Obamacare will have proved to be a mirage. The group—if it votes as a group—easily has the numbers to make its will felt.
Are they prepared to kill the bill?
At this point, it’s hard to decipher the truth with all the competing confidence tricks emanating from the Republican Party. The White House and House leadership are assuring the public that they’re acquiring the votes they need, and that they’ll be at 216 by Thursday’s scheduled roll call. The package of fixes leadership released late Monday night included changes to win over both conservatives—accelerating the bill’s tax cuts and tightening the vise around Medicaid—and moderates—throwing additional money towards the insurance tax credits. In grand sausage-making tradition, the amendment also features a comically narrowly written section specifically designed to relieve upstate New York counties of Medicaid cost-sharing obligations—the cost of several New York Republicans’ votes. Call it the Empire State Appeasement, the Buffalo Buyout, the Tammany Haul, the Poughkeepsie Payola, or what you will: It gets most of the New Yorkers on board.
It is much harder, though, to buy the votes of those with stubborn ideological commitments who are intent on seeing those commitments satisfied.
Conservatives’ main ask is to add deregulatory provisions that leaders say aren’t allowed under Senate rules for reconciliation bills. Well, the Freedom Caucus and conservative senators want them to find a way. They have good reason to stress this. The American Health Care Act as written doesn’t achieve the goals conservative health care reform is intended to achieve, like lowering average premiums. At the same time, it does achieve its negative tradeoffs, like snatching coverage from the grasp of society’s most vulnerable. Deregulating the market would keep most of those negative trade-offs, but it would also at least lower average premiums.
“I think [Trump] could say that he’s going to make sure that, in this bill before the House, that we’re going to remove insurance mandates and essential health benefits,” Meadows said of what it would take for the president to earn conservative holdouts’ votes. No tweaks within the existing framework would sway those holdouts, and no bully-pulpit badgering from the president—something Trump attempted to do on Tuesday morning to great acclaim from Speaker Ryan—could do so, either. Or so Meadows claims.
“These are not personality questions, because if they were personality questions most of the people in the room would have already been a yes,” Meadows said. “They’re policy questions.”
Not all Freedom Caucus members are opposed to the bill, though. Alabama Rep. Gary Palmer, for example, offered his support after Trump agreed to several Medicaid changes during a White House meeting. Even if this may have been unpopular with the rest of the group, the Freedom Caucus has chosen not to take an official position against the bill that would bind its members to a no vote. This gives leaders an opportunity to pick off its members one by one. But just as leaders can allow 21 reluctant members to vote against the bill and still pass it, the Freedom Caucus can release roughly a dozen of its own members to vote for the bill while still maintaining enough opposition to block it.
Even without binding the full group, the Freedom Caucus members most ardently opposed to the bill—Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, and Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, to name a few—say they already have the numbers to tank it barring further changes. They “absolutely” have more than 21 just within the Freedom Caucus alone, Amash said Monday night, and he believed they were unwavering in that position.
The Freedom Caucus hardly has a monopoly on noes, either. There are also the moderates being asked to put their careers on the line to support a bill the Congressional Budget Office has rated in catastrophic terms, along with stray, idiosyncratic Republican no votes here and there. North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones, a conservative thorn-in-the-side who’s not in the Freedom Caucus, told me flatly “no” when I asked if there was anything leadership could do to get him to vote for the bill. And Pennsylvania Rep. Lou Barletta tweeted that he was opposed to the bill because it may allow a single federal health care dollar to fall in the hands of an undocumented immigrant.
Amash on Monday waved off the fear that Trump yelling at them during a conference meeting Monday morning would cause them to waver. “We’ve been yelled at before,” he said.
Trump did not yell at them Tuesday morning. He did, however, deliver certain comments that could be perceived as threats. He told them that members who voted against the bill might not return to Congress. (Because they would be defeated in the general election? Or because he would organize primary opponents against them? That was left for them to parse.) And he singled out Meadows multiple times, flashing a deceivingly playful smile and telling the Freedom Caucus chair that as president he would personally “come after you.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer would later label this a joke. We’ll see.
None of this apparently made any impression. Meadows confirmed he was still a no after the meeting, and so were more than 21 of his members.