Jane Bilello, a retired teacher in North Carolina, wants a wall on the Mexican border and a ban on Syrian refugees and just about “everything” else Donald Trump promised.
One afternoon last week, Bilello, the leader of the Asheville Tea Party, sat in her spare bedroom for two hours and fired off tweets in support of the people Trump was attacking.
“#StandWithHFC,” she wrote again and again during the “tweetfest.”
The House Freedom Caucus, a group of about three dozen of the most right-wing people in the House of Representatives, had just helped to defeat Trump’s plan to replace Obamacare. Living up to its reputation for inflexibility, the caucus simply ignored Trump’s pleas and threats.
Trump launched a series of angry Twitter salvos at the caucus and its leader Mark Meadows, portraying them as betrayers of the party. But in Meadows’s district around the Great Smoky Mountains, where Bilello lives, Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan were themselves being called sellouts.
“What’s hurting the party is the GOP. We are disgusted with the GOP leadership,” Bilello said. “The way they govern is you sit down, shut up and be quiet. The reason this country’s circling the drain: we know where the Democrats stand; the problem is, the GOP caves to the left. They constantly do that. We have a voice, we the people, in the Freedom Caucus. And we will stand behind them.”
The unwavering backing of Tea Party groups is one of the reasons the Freedom Caucus has managed to keep defying the people who are theoretically in control of the Republican party while some of those same people call them misguided, unrealistic and extreme. A year and a half after engineering the ouster of House Speaker John Boehner, a two-year-old group representing just one-seventh of the Republican delegation in the House is now a thorn in the side of Ryan and Trump.
The Freedom Caucus has little fear of either man. Which means that while the most visible opposition to Trump might come in the form of liberals’ street demonstrations and town-hall swarms, Republican congressmen in suits may prove to be among his most effective short-term antagonists.
“A lot of these members have built fundraising and grassroots infrastructures outside of the party structure. So they’re quite independent,” said Matt Kibbe, former president of a top Tea Party group and now president of the libertarian group Free the People. “Because they were elected with Tea Party support, they’re more independent of Republican leadership, they’re more independent of presidential arm-twisting. And they’re also anchored to these ideas, and they feel accountability to the people that put them there.”
Of 32 Freedom Caucus members studied by the political website FiveThirtyEight, 27 did even better in their districts in the 2016 election than Trump did. And in part because of conservative “gerrymandering” of district boundaries, almost all of them represent deeply conservative communities whose voters are unlikely to punish them for being too far right.
“If somebody can get to the right of me in the primary, God bless him,” Arizona Rep. Trent Franks, shrugging off Trump’s attacks, told Roll Call in March.
The official Freedom Caucus membership list is secret, but the caucus is understood to be made up entirely of men, all but one of them white. The majority live in the south and southwest.
Meadows, 57, is an affable former restaurateur and real estate developer. The original caucus leader, Jim Jordan, 53, is a former Ohio state legislator and wrestling champion. Prominent member Raul Labrador, 49, is a Hispanic lawyer from Idaho who crossed the country to campaign for Trump.
“The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” Trump wrote on Twitter in March.
“Freedom Caucus stood with u when others ran. Remember who your real friends are. We’re trying to help u succeed,” Labrador responded.
The caucus’s ability to influence legislation reflects the severe partisan polarization in the House. If Trump and Ryan have no hope of securing votes from Democrats and little appetite to try, they need almost the entire Republican delegation on board to pass bills — which means “any organized group within that party conference can hold you hostage,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Many of their fellow Republicans would not be so polite as to call the Freedom Caucus hostage-takers. When Meadows successfully led an extraordinary effort to shove out Boehner in 2015, Republican Rep. Peter King said: “This is a victory for the crazies.” When Meadows and other future Freedom Caucus members successfully pushed the party in 2013 to shut down the government rather than fund Obamacare, conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer dubbed them the “suicide caucus.”
Freedom Caucus members say they stand for liberty, small government, the Constitution and the rules of the House. To followers like Bilello, they are authentic conservatives rather than the so-called “RINOs” — Republicans in name only.
To Norm Ornstein, a veteran scholar of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, they are “radicals.”
Ornstein laughed at the argument, made by conservative writer George Will in the Washington Post on Thursday, that the caucus cares about protecting the institution of the House.
“The way the institution works is through negotiation and compromise,” Ornstein said. “Two words that are utter anathema to the Freedom Caucus.”
The health care bill failed in part because of united Democratic opposition, in part because other Republicans were concerned about the loss of insurance coverage for more than 20 million people. But Barack Obama’s signature legislation was also saved in part because the Freedom Caucus believed that the bill didn’t go far enough: it wasn’t the “full repeal” they had run on.
Their strange bedfellows in the battle against the legislation, the liberal Indivisible movement, could hardly bring themselves to acknowledge they had shared a bed at all. The advocacy group was started by Democratic former congressional staffers in the wake of Trump’s victory.
“The people that we were working with were acting to save as many people as possible, trying to preserve as much access to health care. And this other group of members was basically trying to be as mean and as nasty as possible,” said Indivisible co-founder Angel Padilla. “So we would never consider ourselves to be on the same side.”
Indeed, the Freedom Caucus will not be part of the “resistance” to most of Trump’s initiatives. Caucus members support his tax-cutting, regulation-slashing agenda, and their libertarian streak does not extend to support for immigrant-friendly immigration reform.
But there may well be more intraparty battles to come.
Trump, who has shown little commitment to right-wing orthodoxy, shifted toward the establishmentarian centre this week on several issues. One of the flip-flops was to support the Export-Import Bank, an entity the Freedom Caucus wants abolished. Members of the caucus have sounded skeptical of the tariffs and border adjustment tax Trump has floated.
Trump has not yet figured out how to deal with them. The self-styled master negotiator has seemed confused about how to persuade a group that is more interested in making points than making deals.
A half-joking Trump threat to “come after” Meadows if he didn’t fall in line on health care was a “crucial misreading” that only steeled the congressman’s resolve, Politico reported. And the caucus was dismayed, Politico reported, when Trump cut off a discussion of the provisions of the health-care bill by telling them to “forget about the little s–t.”
The Freedom Caucus first made its name railing against Boehner’s leadership on arcane procedural grounds. They alleged that he was circumventing the rules of the House in order to curb the power of rank-and-file members.
“These guys care about the small s–t,” said Kibbe. “It’s not about politics, it’s not about passing the bill. It’s about getting it right. And you can’t sort of BS your way past that.
Source: The Star