Trump Meets Freedom Caucus and Result Is Legislative Disaster

  • Conservatives helped sink president’s first major legislation
  • Trump calls group ‘friends of mine’ but admits surprise

During one of his frequent visits to the White House in recent days, Representative Mark Meadows listened to Donald Trump talk about a tote-board he uses to track his presidential campaign promises.

It included the one Meadows was there to talk about, repealing Obamacare. Trump made clear to the head of the House Freedom Caucus that he’s been going down that board, checking off each promise on the list -- and that he wanted to cross this one off too, so he could move on to a tax overhaul and others.

Mark Meadows

Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Except it wasn’t that simple. House leaders abruptly scrapped a planned vote on repeal Friday because not enough support materialized, largely due to Meadows’s Freedom Caucus, made up of Congress’s most rebellious conservative members.

For Trump, it was a taste of the anti-establishment fury that propelled him to the White House, delivered by a band of Republican lawmakers who’d rather defy the president than compromise on their conservative ideals.

Put simply, Trump underestimated them, failing to appreciate their determination to block legislation they considered a politically dubious half-measure, even if doing so humiliated Trump, lawmakers and conservative activists said.

“Members of the Freedom Caucus are committed to their constituents and their conservative values. If President Trump was not aware of their resolve before, he is now,” said Alice Stewart, who was a strategist on Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.

Turning to Taxes

There’s no evidence the group is prepared to fall in line any more easily behind Trump’s next legislation target, the first comprehensive tax overhaul in 30 years. The group’s roughly 40 members are strong believers in low taxes and small government, and also want to rein in entitlements and slash the deficit, two things Trump has never made a priority.

"For the good of our country, I want to see President Trump and his agenda succeed," said Representative Dave Brat of Virginia, a leading group member who complained the leaders’ bill left too much of Obamacare in place. But in the same statement, Brat said, "My promise to my constituents remains the same: I will always follow my principles, work toward good policy, and listen to my constituents."

What’s surprising to some analysts is that anyone can still be surprised. Conservatives who were later to form into the Freedom Caucus pushed for the government shutdown in 2013 over the objections of House leaders. It’s the group that ran off former Speaker John Boehner after finding him too willing to compromise with Democrats. And now it’s the catalyst behind the deal of Trump’s hoped-for health overhaul.

“They’re friends of mine,” Trump said of the caucus on Friday, after House Speaker Paul Ryan had pulled the bill from the floor. “I’m disappointed because we could have had it. I’m a little surprised, to be honest with you.”

Trump displayed some frustration with the group Friday morning, before the bill collapsed, in a tweet from his personal account.

“The irony is that the Freedom Caucus, which is very pro-life and against Planned Parenthood, allows P.P. to continue if they stop this plan!” he said. Now that frustration has bled over to some in the House Republican conference, who say the group abandoned Trump at a critical moment and is too lashed to its rigid ideology.

‘Freedom Caucus rate hike’

Representative Chris Collins of New York, a close Trump ally, has said the group should disband and fold itself back into a larger conservative caucus, the Republican Study Committee. Representative Austin Scott of Georgia suggested that if health insurance premiums rise as a result of the House bill’s failure, the Freedom Caucus would be to blame.

“Get ready for the Freedom Caucus rate hike,” he said.

Trump might be forgiven for thinking the group would be a surefire "yes." Nearly all came from congressional districts Trump carried overwhelmingly. Many backed his campaign.

Indeed, roughly half of the Freedom Caucus members were ready to sign on to the Obamacare repeal bill. The other half still thought it didn’t go nearly far enough. Meadows and other members picked up on Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul’s saddling of the bill with a label that probably helped doom it: "Obamacare Lite."

For the bill’s supporters, it was a promising enough start. Representative Dave Schweikert of Arizona said he was proud to have voted to advance the measure out of the Ways and Means Committee, and praised it as a move to dismantle Obamacare’s "damaging taxes and mandates" so states could deliver better, more affordable health options.

Schweikert’s Arizona colleague, Representative Trent Franks, also came to support the measure, although he wasn’t happy about the limitations placed on the bill to conform with Senate rules.

But Brat, who said the bill didn’t go far enough to undo Obamacare’s regulations on insurance companies, was among others who weren’t ready to support it. He said Saturday, "The initial construction of this bill kept the structure and architecture of Obamacare fully in place."

Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan of Ohio stuck to his insistence that Congress needed to first pass a complete, clean repeal of Obamacare, and then get to work on devising a replacement. After the bill was pulled, he said, "Now, House Republicans owe it to our constituents to immediately get back to the drawing board and bring forward a bolder effort to replace the failing Obamacare with a plan to reduce costs by increasing choice and competition."

White House Meetings

It wasn’t that Trump didn’t try to get support from the Freedom Caucus. He invited the group to the White House several times -- and more importantly, asked its members to offer suggestions to improve the bill. (Trump made the same offer to the moderate "Tuesday Group" of House Republicans, at a time when Ryan was trying to rally support behind the existing bill.)

The negotiating intensified between the White House and the group in the last week, and the Freedom Caucus members said the talks were productive, but complained about Ryan’s Thursday time line for a vote as arbitrary and rushed. 

After Trump visited Capitol Hill Tuesday, he brought some members of the group to the White House Wednesday, prompting Meadows to return to the Capitol and tell reporters he was "cautiously optimistic."   Even as he went into a meeting with fellow caucus members to describe the developments, he says Trump personally called him on his cellphone to talk some more.

Meadows had won a big concession from the president -- the bill would be changed to strip out Obamacare’s requirements that health insurers provide a set of essential health benefits. But the last-minute change wasn’t quite enough for the Freedom Caucus holdouts, but went too far for some wavering moderates, who declared their opposition the next day.

After another meeting Thursday with some members of the caucus and the president, there was still no deal, and Ryan’s plan to vote that day, on the seventh anniversary of Obamacare being signed into law, was put off. A last-ditch meeting Friday with Vice President Mike Pence, who served 12 years in the House, also failed to break the logjam. And the bill was pulled, 30 minutes before the scheduled vote.

Conservative groups place some of the blame on Ryan, who has generally had good relations with the group after working early on to give them more say in Republican matters than Boehner did and more freedom to bring bills to the floor. 

But in this case, the Freedom Caucus was only looped in after the bill was introduced and an avalanche of criticism already had mounted on the right, making it more difficult for the group to get on board.

Wide Opposition

The bill achieved the rare feat of uniting Democrats and Republicans on both ideological ends of their party in opposition. Moderate Republicans worried that the legislation would leave too many Americans without coverage and drive up insurance premiums.

The Congressional Budget Office said that about 24 million Americans would lose or drop their insurance coverage over a decade, at a savings of about $150 billion to the federal government.

Miscalculating the depth of the Freedom Caucus’s opposition leaves Trump’s ambitious agenda in jeopardy. Congressional leaders had maintained that they must tackle the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, a long-promised goal of most Republicans, before turning to other key priorities such as an overhaul of the tax code or Trump’s infrastructure construction plan.

Trump and Ryan both said on Friday that they will next pursue a tax overhaul.
Caucus members insist they have not abandoned Trump. The group said on Twitter Friday that it “looks forward to working with him” on a future, “better’ health care bill.

“We will always be able to work with him,” Franks said Friday. “The president knows the Freedom Caucus are his strongest supporters.”

— With assistance by Erik Wasson, and Arit John

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