For Freedom Caucus, defying Trump could have consequences

President Donald Trump walks to the White House after arriving on Marine One, Sunday, March 19, 2017, in Washington. Trump is returning from a trip to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

When President Donald Trump took to Twitter early Friday to send what may be his final two tweets about the American Health Care Act before the House votes, the Freedom Caucus was clearly in his crosshairs.

“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 wrote.

The House Freedom Caucus, a cadre of conservatives, libertarians and others who have shown no hesitation to buck the party leadership, has been heavily critical of the AHCA, a Republican attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something more aligned with their priorities. Many members of the caucus have publicly said they will not vote for it.

The House planned to vote on the legislation on Friday afternoon. The Freedom Caucus met with Trump at the White House Thursday and with Vice President Mike Pence on Friday.

Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., issued a statement hours before the vote derisively referring to the bill as “Obamacare 2.0” and calling it “the largest Republican welfare program in history.”

“As much as I would like to vote with many of my Republican colleagues in Congress and in the White House (most of whom privately tell me they dislike the bad policy in this bill), I will vote against the American Health Care Act because it has more bad policy than any bill I have ever faced,” he said.

The White House contends the AHCA is the only opportunity Republicans will have to repeal Obamacare and the president will leave the health insurance system as it is if it fails. Democrats and some Republicans claim that the bill could leave millions more uninsured and raise costs for some of the most vulnerable populations.

Freedom Caucus members have complained that the bill does not truly constitute a repeal of Obamacare and it does not provide enough free market reforms to reduce premiums. The White House emphasizes that this is only phase one of a three-phase replacement process.

According to Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, the caucus now faces an “excruciating” choice between voting for a bill that does not reflect their principles and defying a president who is likely very popular with their constituents on his first major piece of legislation.

“It’s an impossible situation for them and I think a good number of them are going to bow to that pressure,” he said.

The Freedom Caucus formed in early 2015 when nine House Republicans came together to promote more conservative policies than GOP leadership would get behind. Founding members included current Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

The caucus now includes dozens of the most right-wing Republicans in the House, and they have repeatedly proven that they can have a powerful voice when united on an issue. They have also adopted more hardline tactics than others within the party would consider.

“We don’t want a shutdown, we don’t want a default on the debt, but when the other side knows that you’re unwilling to do it you will always lose,” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, told the New Yorker in December 2015.

One of the caucus’ earliest successes was pressuring then-Speaker John Boehner to resign in fall 2015. Their opposition was also instrumental in forcing Rep. Kevin McCarthy to withdraw from consideration as his replacement.

The caucus initially had a better relationship with Speaker Paul Ryan, but tensions have since risen between the small conservative faction and the party’s establishment wing. They may now be Democrats’ best hope for spiking Ryan and Trump’s attempt to undo President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.

A Pew Research Center analysis found that members of the Freedom Caucus are mostly conservative white men, younger and less experienced in Congress than the average Republican, and more likely to represent districts in southern or western states.

“A member of the House Freedom Caucus is fundamentally different from most members of Congress in that they are sort of ideological first and that ideological lens is applied to every issue,” Mackowiak said.

If the president thinks they should accept the bill because it’s what he wants, he may be misunderstanding their priorities.

“They certainly seem to have the political authority in their districts to do what they’re doing,” said Bob Mann, a former Senate press secretary and a professor at Louisiana State University.

Their effectiveness in pushing Boehner out and extracting other concessions from GOP leadership may be driving them to push harder on the AHCA, but they may have gotten too bold this time. Even if the AHCA can pass in the House, a vote in the Senate, where Republicans have only a two-seat majority, looms.

“The margins in the Senate are just so tight. How do you pass a bill in the House that’s designed to mollify the Freedom Caucus that doesn’t lose you at least two votes in the Senate?” he said.

Mulvaney said Friday that the president is done negotiating with the group.

"He's tired of the drawn out negotiations,” he told CNBC. “He's tired of folks always coming up with better ideas, and nitpicking the bill as it is."

Mulvaney warned that caucus members are sacrificing the best possible bill to hold out for a perfect bill that does not exist.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., rejected the argument that the bill on the table is the only option.

“This doesn’t kill reconciliation. You can start again,” he told Sinclair.

Experts say there is a good reason the Freedom Caucus has substantial leverage for a group that came together two years ago and only includes a fraction of the House membership.

“Their power comes from basic math more than anything else,” Mackowiak said.

As long as their membership is larger than the margin between Republicans and Democrats in the House, their support means the difference between success and failure on the floor.

“They want to use their influence to make legislation more conservative,” he said, and they have had some success with that on the AHCA in recent days.

That math magnifies their power in cases like this where earning Democratic votes is impossible, Mann said, and it imbues them with outsized influence.

“They forced the White House to capitulate to them in almost everything they wanted,” he said.

Trump has reportedly threatened Republicans who vote against the AHCA. Administration officials told the Daily Beast Friday that chief strategist Steve Bannon is encouraging him to keep a list of those who oppose him.

“He wants a running tally of [the Republicans] who want to sink this…Not sure if I’d call it an ‘enemies list,’ per se, but I wouldn’t want to be on it,” one official told the site.

Experts say that is not an empty threat. Trump’s national approval ratings may be historically low, but he remains extremely popular among the Republicans who populate these members’ districts.

Trump has already demonstrated an ability to attract thousands of supporters to rallies in recent weeks. If he were to endorse a challenger to a caucus member in the 2018 primaries and comes to town to campaign, it could make a difference.

“He may look at this experience and say, ‘I need more members who support my agenda,’” Mackowiak said.

This is one reason caucus chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., has said caucus members are still trying to get to yes on the bill.

“They don’t want to cross the president,” Mackowiak said.

Mann said they cannot ignore the threat of the president’s wrath, but they likely will not be cowed by his attacks either, especially if his White House continues to struggle.

“Every politician in this situation has to balance the popularity of the president but also what kind of popularity is he likely to have in 18 months,” he said.

Gosar brushed off the threat of retribution.

“I got four titles better than congressman. Husband, father, citizen and doctor,” he said. “I don’t need it.”

Regardless of how the vote turns out, the days of negotiation with the caucus and the alterations to the bill as a result may convince them that they can continue to make demands of the speaker and the president on other issues.

“I think it probably has emboldened this Freedom Caucus that they can push Ryan around, they can command the attention and extract concessions from the president, and I don’t think it’s going to make them reticent to try to push the speaker to the right even more,” Mann said.

On Friday morning, Mulvaney expressed optimism that this conflict will not sour relations between the White House and Congress or jeopardize future priorities like tax reform.

“At the end of the day, legislation stands on its own merits and the viability of a tax plan will be based almost exclusively on the merits of that plan… We do not think it will be impacted one way or the other by this decision,” he told CNBC.

Mackowiak did not share that confidence. The Republican agenda for 2017 was carefully constructed and one of the first major steps collapsing could create a rift that makes the rest much more difficult.

“A failure here is a real threat to that unity… It’s going to be on thin ice if this fails,” he said.

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