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Freedom Caucus members adjust to minority status in House

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., center, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, flanked by Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, talk before a series of votes in the House, at the Capitol in Washington (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Not so long ago -- the blink of an eye, really, in the long sweep of history -- junior members of Congress understood, because all-powerful leadership figures never let them forget it, that they really only had two jobs: to tend to constituent services and, while mastering their committee assignments, to keep their mouths shut.

But in the decades since Watergate, when the seniority system collapsed, alternative media proliferated, and the elimination of earmarks made it harder to keep rank-and-file members in line, American voters have been treated to the increasingly frequent spectacle of relatively junior lawmakers openly challenging their party's leaders, across a range of issues.

"Welcome to the Digital Age," then-House Speaker John Boehner bitterly told a reporter in 2011, when reminded of how G.O.P. lawmakers who hadn't been in Washington very long -- think Michele Bachman or Jim DeMint -- were brazenly departing from the line set by Boehner and his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, on the advisability of raising the debt ceiling, the day's pressing issue. "I know what I'm up against," Boehner snapped -- but four years later, the canny Ohioan, as shrewd a tactician as any of his predecessors, found himself summarily deposed by another faction of relatively new Republican lawmakers, many of whom rode the Tea Party wave to Congress.

Formed in 2015, the House Freedom Caucus, a group of staunch conservatives, is widely credited not only with Boehner's fall from power that same year, but with last year's surprising retirement announcement from Boehner's successor, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who also clashed frequently with the group.

Described by Boehner after his retirement as "the knucklehead caucus," a gang of "anarchists" staked out to the "right of right," the caucus is known for standing firmly against compromise, and sometimes withholding votes, on key issues like immigration, budget deficits, and Obamacare. This unflinching willingness to challenge the GOP hierarchy has made the caucus unpopular with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who served as a leadership figure under Speakers Boehner and Ryan, and stoked criticism from rank-and-file Republicans as well.

"I have to tell you, when I first got here, some of the incumbent members thought [my joining the caucus] was just terrible. They couldn't believe that I joined it," says Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Az., who was first elected to Congress in May and is the only woman in the caucus. "But they had really, I think, a misconception of the Freedom Caucus....I think that sometimes they get a bum rap, quite frankly. Some of the other Republican members sometimes characterize them as, you know, way too right-wing...I have not found that to be true. Within the caucus, of the people that show up on a regular basis, there's varying views."

Caucus members pay $5,000 in annual dues and typically meet on "fly-in" days, when members return to Washington from their home districts. The fees support a small staff that arranges in-depth briefings for caucus members on selected pieces of legislation and related issues.

While some analysts have predicted diminished influence for the caucus now that Republicans ceded the speaker's gavel to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the group's founding chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, rejects that view. "People have been trying to downplay the significance of the Freedom Caucus since -- since we've been formed. Then, when President Trump came in, they said, 'Well, they won't be as important now.'"

While the group aligns frequently with the president -- caucus chair Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., is known to be one of Mr. Trump's closest allies on Capitol Hill, speaking to him virtually every day -- even the chief executive has occasionally grown irritated by the caucus' ideological purity. "The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast," Mr. Trump tweeted in October 2017, during the fractious debates over which parts of Obamacare should be preserved, and which repealed. "We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!"

At the time he reluctantly agreed to serve as speaker, Ryan issued a statement expressing gratitude for the support of a "supermajority" of the Freedom Caucus -- just months after the group had formed. But his relations with the group proved as fraught as Boehner's had been. A case in point: Ryan capitulated to caucus demands that he speak out against the Trump-era Department of Justice for withholding documents relating to the so-called Steele dossier that caucus members had been trying for months, in vain, to pry loose; but Ryan broke with the group when he refused to call for the resignation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last September, after it was disclosed that Rosenstein had proposed wearing a wire to record President Trump surreptitiously.

Under Meadows's leadership, and with Republicans controlling the House, the Freedom Caucus surely reached the apex of its power, at least for now. The group is believed to have raised some $10 million for House races in the last cycle -- and that figure is expected to double for the next. But elections for a new chair and other leadership positions, originally set for January, have been pushed back to the fall, sources said, as the group seeks to preserve Meadows's direct line to the Oval Office and the caucus' fundraising prowess.

Jordan, now in his seventh term, sees the group maintaining its influence in the Kevin McCarthy era. "It's in our best interests to unite," Jordan told Sinclair in his office recently, "and I think that's what the leadership wants to do."

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