Freedom Caucus is becoming power broker for House Republicans

Eliza Collins
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C, speaks on Capitol Hill in 2013.

WASHINGTON — The all-Republican House Freedom Caucus made its name by not being afraid to break with the leadership of the Republican Party. But these days, the gaggle of far-right lawmakers is hoping to work more as party power brokers, looking to shape legislation for the GOP that can get all the way to the president’s desk.

“There’s clout, you know, especially in a unified government where you’re not going to be looking at necessarily making a piece of legislation more moderate and picking up Democrats,” caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told USA TODAY. “We’re well-aware of the numbers and I think it increases, I guess, our responsibility to be well-informed and making sure that we make good decisions.”

The Freedom Caucus consists of roughly 40 members — “roughly” because members can choose whether they want to make their membership public. And while Republicans have a majority in the House, it takes just a couple dozen lawmakers to rebel for the party to lose its majority on any given bill.

Caucus members have exerted their influence before. The group — unhappy with compromises that former House speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, made with the Obama administration — was behind Boehner’s resignation in the fall of 2015.

But now the group is working closely with the new leadership under Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Ryan has put in place an open-door policy for all House Republicans and texts frequently with rank-and-file members. Meadows and other Freedom Caucus members attend weekly advisory board meetings with more moderate representatives from throughout the House GOP membership.

“We’re working well with them. And they also see that as a block we can help propel a decision and we can also help stop legislation, so I think they want to work with us,” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, told USA TODAY.

“House Republicans are working as a team to now implement major provisions of our Better Way agenda rolled out last year, including Obamacare repeal and replace and tax reform,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said when asked about the speaker's relationship with the caucus.

Without the threat of former president Barack Obama’s veto, Republican lawmakers see a window to work together and get GOP-endorsed legislation signed into law under President Trump. And Freedom Caucus members want to put their imprint on what ends up in the bills.

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Last week, members of the group hosted two Republican senators who had introduced replacement plans for Obamacare. Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy  — who introduced a plan with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine — and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., pitched their plans to members of the group hoping for an endorsement.

“I think [the meeting was] very good. We all seem to be on the same wavelength that there needs to be a conservative, Republican replacement plan out there and that can be the consensus plan that Republicans can all join together on,” Paul told USA TODAY following the meeting.

“The more people that endorse a plan, the more leverage you have within your own caucus, so there are battles up here that are Republican-Democrat and then there are battles within each caucus as to which ideas become dominant,” Paul said in explaining why he made the trek to the House side of Capitol Hill to try to convince the far-right lawmakers to back his option.

Cassidy also met privately with members of the caucus, touting his proposal to the group and discussing everything from tax credits to the mechanics of the bill.

“We’re listening to everybody,” Labrador said. Health care “is a big deal, you know this is an important issue. And not all of us are experts on health care so we want to hear from as many people as possible."

“We also understand that as a block we have an ability to move legislation one way or another if we stick together as a block,” he added.

Rep. Raul Labrador speaks with members of the media  at Trump Tower on Dec. 12, 2016, in New York.

In order for the caucus to endorse anything, there must be 80% support. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said so far conversations on the Affordable Care Act repeal process “were spirited” and the group has not backed a bill.

But it isn’t just health care the group is trying to wield power on. They hosted a listening session with an economist on the border tax last week and met with Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, this week to talk tax reform.

The group does have a chance to make House legislation more conservative, but the Senate still requires 60 votes to pass most legislation. There are just 52 Republicans in the Senate, meaning some Senate Democrats will have to vote for a bill before it can get to Trump's desk.

“The Freedom Caucus does have the ability to pull the Republican caucus to the right in the House. But Majority Leader McConnell is forced in the Senate to pull the caucus toward the middle to be able to get enough Democrats to be able to get to 60 votes,” said Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

“So in some sense, the more successful the Freedom Caucus is, the less likely it is that legislation is going to move forward through the Senate,” he added.

Contributing: Deborah Barfield Berry