The behind-the-scenes story of the staredown between a few dozen conservative true believers and a novice president.
Speaker Paul Ryan and House leaders had been toiling behind closed doors for weeks assembling their Obamacare repeal bill as suspicion on the far-right simmered to a boil.
So on March 7, just hours after Ryan unveiled a plan that confirmed its worst fears, the House Freedom Caucus rushed to devise a counterstrategy. The few dozen true believers knew that pressure from House leaders and President Donald Trump to fall in line would be immense and they were intent on not getting boxed in.
In a conference room in the Rayburn House Office Building, the group met that evening and made a secret pact. No member would commit his vote before consulting with the entire group — not even if Trump himself called to ask for an on-the-spot commitment. The idea, hatched by Freedom Caucus Vice Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), was to bind them together in negotiations and ensure the White House or House leaders could not peel them off one by one.
Twenty-eight of the group’s roughly three dozen members took the plunge.
Three weeks later, Republican leaders, as many as 25 votes short of passage, were forced to pull their bill from the House floor.
“This is a defining moment for our nation, but it’s also a defining moment for the Freedom Caucus,” said group leader Mark Meadows about a week before the doomed vote was scheduled. “I don’t think there’s a more critical vote for the Freedom Caucus than this.”
The unpublicized pledge sowed the seeds of Friday’s collapse of the Republican Party’s seven-year campaign to replace Obamacare with its own vision of health care reform. While Trump and leadership were able to win over some Freedom Caucus members, the parties to the pact refused to budge without a green light from their peers, despite receiving one concession after another.
Their resistance — along with the objections of a handful of moderates — stymied Trump and Ryan in the first major legislative gambit between the policy expert and political novice. The Freedom Caucus stared down its own commander in chief and won — delivering a black eye to his early presidency and potentially damaging the rest of his agenda.
“Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!” Trump tweeted Sunday morning.
“They [were] basically saying, ‘We’re going to find all the guys who support it, and we’re all going to hold hands and be a ‘no’ on something,’” said a senior Republican source. “It’s ironic because these are the guys who say, ‘I don’t turn my voting card over to leadership. I am the only guy who controls my voting card.’ But then they do this stuff, where they say, ‘I can’t because my group is a no.’”
This account of the Freedom Caucus’ central role in the health care showdown is based on interviews with more than two dozen Republican legislators, White House officials and congressional aides. Time and again, they described the tortured, toxic political dynamic within the House Republican Conference — old news to those who’ve followed years of internecine battles between the far-right and leadership, but never experienced or appreciated until now by Trump.
Freedom Caucus members told the White House they distrusted Ryan because he doesn’t listen to their concerns. They refused to work with him, going around his back to negotiate with the White House. Little Trump did to woo them worked because the group always wanted more, White House officials and GOP leadership insiders said. They were buoyed by outside groups rooting them on, and didn’t fear the White House’s fury because the law was unpopular — and, increasingly, so was the president.
“There was this huge, deep distrust,” one senior administration official said. “No matter what you offered them, or what you said, someone was unhappy with you. The level of distrust in the House ranks is far more than has been reported.”
Their House colleagues are furious with them for, as Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) put it, “deserting the team.” Some top White House officials say they learned their lesson about trying to negotiate with the group.
“How can [Freedom Caucus members] go back and face their constituents if they’re the reason we didn’t get the most significant entitlement reform in a generation, if they’re the reason we didn’t keep our promise for repealing Obamacare?” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) said shortly before Ryan pulled the bill. “It defies to me to understand where they’re coming from.”
Their all-for-one strategy bedeviled Ryan’s leadership team and other top White House officials during a frantic whipping operation in the days leading up to the vote. It undermined a key strategy laid out by GOP Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who believed Trump’s personal involvement, including face-to-face negotiations with some lawmakers and groups, would ultimately win over the Freedom Caucus. Trump even subtly threatened their political careers during a closed-door conference meeting three days before the scheduled vote, telling Meadows while winking: “Mark, I’m coming after you.”
“They informally said: ‘Let’s stick together,’” said one Freedom Caucus source who described the strategy. “Whenever someone had a conversation with a whip or a member of the leadership team, or there was a discussion with White House staff, there was immediate discussion with the group, whether it was via telephone or a ton of group meetings.”
The source added: “It made it much harder if you were in leadership to pick these guys off.”
Most Freedom Caucus members say the group was merely sticking up for conservative values. In tanking the bill, they believed they’d get a shot at making it more conservative at a later point. During a Sunday interview on ABC’s “This Week,” Meadows said “Trump will deliver.”
“As we look at this today, this is not the end of the debate,” he said. “It’s up to the conservatives and the moderates to come together in the coming days to present something to the president.”
HFC members also pushed back hard against any notion that they changed their demands, saying they’ve wanted the same thing the whole time.
Some caucus members struggled with the strategy, wanting to repeal Obamacare but furious that Ryan’s proposal didn’t go far enough. A few felt obligated to vote “yes” to back Trump, but never switched because they didn’t get the go-ahead from the band of ideological purists.
During a last-minute Friday afternoon plea from Vice President Mike Pence, members including Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) and even Meadows were visibly upset, sources said. But if some were starting to crack, they never got the chance. Ryan pulled the bill, and many are now pinning the debacle on the Freedom Caucus.
“There is no logical explanation for their behavior except they wanted to kill the bill,” said one senior House Republican, furious about the bill’s defeat. “Trump is now looking to work with Democrats to get health care done. … Now, any health care reform will be less ambitious, less conservative.”
From the start, few liked the Republican plan and no one loved it. Immediately after the bill dropped, high-profile conservative lawmakers and groups panned it as “Obamacare Lite.” Just about every medical and health care group warned it would hurt Americans. And moderates were spooked by a Congressional Budget Office score that showed it would result in 24 million more uninsured Americans in the next decade.
So Republicans started logrolling.
New York lawmakers got the “Buffalo bribe,” a provision to stick the state instead of counties with rising health care costs. Leaders bought goodwill from North Carolina and Kansas lawmakers with a ban on new states expanding Medicaid.
Individual lawmakers secured pet initiatives, persuading them to come on board. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) flipped after Ryan agreed to hold a vote on his bill to require Social Security verification to receive health care tax credits offered by the GOP health plan.
And the White House clinched a deal with the 160-member strong Republican Study Committee by agreeing to its demands on Medicaid and curbing abortions.
But the Freedom Caucus remained elusive. Senior Republicans were heartened by the fact that the group never took an official position against the bill, and three of their more pragmatic-minded members voted for it in committee. That proved to be a false sense of security.
The president launched his charm offensive starting with Meadows, a ripe target after having campaigned with the president in North Carolina. Trump invited the Freedom Caucus chief and his right-hand man Jordan to lunch with him at the White House and called him dozens of times the week before the planned vote. He also wooed individual members of the group in the Oval Office and over late-night phone calls.
“I don’t think [White House officials] understood the depth of our commitment to try to make the repeal of Obamacare, a repeal of Obamacare,” Mo Brooks said. | AP Photo
The White House also leaned on GOP leaders to make further concessions to appease the right, including getting rid of Obamacare taxes more quickly.
But as soon as that provision came out, caucus members said it wasn’t enough. They wanted Congress to, in effect, start over: Pass a repeal-only bill, then come back with replacement legislation later on, with their input. That idea, however, would have been dead on arrival in the Senate.
Freedom Caucus insiders said offers of compromise or arguments for support were often panned by the most ardent members of the group, such as Jordan and Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho). The group acceded to those voices.
“When you’re a minority in an organization, your strength is in sticking together … and at least not making the commitment to someone else before you talk to the rest of the folks who are like-minded,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), a caucus member, said of the group’s strategy. “You don’t agree to something … until you come back to the group and say, ‘Hey, this what I heard.’”
The members were also buttressed by outside forces. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) repeatedly showed up to Freedom Caucus meetings to remind members that they could take down the bill if they stuck together. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) met privately with caucus members to explain his issues with the bill — though he stopped short of telling them how to vote, sources said. And Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) called at least a dozen conservative House members before the planned vote to urge them to hold firm.
Outside groups also cheered them on. The powerful Heritage Foundation, which has links to the White House, as well as Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers network, which has deep ties among members, frequently encouraged Freedom Caucus members to stand their ground. The deep-pocketed groups offered to start a seven-figure war chest to defend members who voted against the plan.
At times, the Freedom Caucus pact showed cracks. At a bill-signing ceremony at the White House, Trump pulled aside Freedom Caucus member Jim Bridenstine and implored him to vote for the bill. The Oklahoma congressman flipped his position that day. Trump also was able to win over Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), multiple sources said. And Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) offered his vote after a phone call with the president.
That wasn’t enough. GOP leaders, who lost just over a dozen centrist and moderate Republicans, needed at least half the group if not more to pass the bill. They weren’t anywhere near that.
Seeing how the battle was trending, and well aware they were running out of time, White House legislative staffers were still concerned they didn’t have the numbers.
So the White House again offered more. After a meeting with the group at the White House Wednesday, Trump leaned on Ryan to repeal “essential health benefits,” an Obamacare requirement that insurance plans include a minimum level of services. Ryan caved, after arguing just hours earlier that such a provision would tank the bill in the Senate under the chamber’s arcane budget rules.
“We thought that could get us there,” one senior administration official said.
Freedom Caucus members weighed the offer, but a few hours later said it would not secure their support. They wanted to repeal “Title One” regulations, which encompass the most popular aspects of Obamacare, such as mandating coverage of people with pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health plans.
That was a nonstarter for the White House. Trump had campaigned on keeping those popular provisions and there was no way such a proposal could pass the House, let alone the Senate.
“I don’t think [White House officials] understood the depth of our commitment to try to make the repeal of Obamacare, a repeal of Obamacare, instead of an embedding of Obamacare into the federal system, albeit a morphed form,” said caucus member Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) just hours after the White House’s latest peace offer.
White House officials grew frustrated as they felt Meadows kept asking for “more and more,” as one senior GOP official put it, even though they felt he personally wanted a deal.
For instance, after a 90-minute meeting with the president Thursday, officials felt the caucus was getting closer to coming around. “It was all happy talk,” said one senior administration official.
But when the group went back to Capitol Hill and huddled privately, momentum was lost. No caucus member changed his vote.
White House officials started to feel the internal war in the House was about more than just policy. They frequently heard from Freedom Caucus members about how much they distrusted Ryan, who they complained excluded them from his drafting of the Obamacare replacement. White House officials became convinced that the more Ryan was involved, the less the Freedom Caucus trusted them to deliver.
During an emergency meeting in Ryan’s office Thursday night, the speaker and top Trump aides made their final appeal to the Freedom Caucus. White House officials Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Andrew Bremberg and Marc Short argued the group should hang their hat on the essential health benefits win and declare victory. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, presented the lawmakers with a letter from Trump outlining all the Obamacare regulations his administration would repeal on its own.
But the written promises from the president also didn’t move them.
In a particularly tense exchange, Ryan at the end of the meeting tried to go around the room to each individual caucus member and ask where they stood. He first turned to Brooks. But Meadows jumped in, seeming to not allow the other caucus members to answer the speaker, according to three sources in the room.
“Meadows said, ‘I speak for the group, I speak for the group,’” said one person in the meeting. “None of them could really get a word in. … [Meadows] didn’t want to get these guys on the record in the room with the White House.”
Ryan reminded Meadows that he said publicly the group was free to vote as they choose since his group never took a position on the bill. But that didn’t make a difference.
“They weren’t going to get any commitments in the room,” said one attendee. “They just weren’t. It wasn’t productive anymore.”
There was a growing sense among White House officials and senior Republicans that the group’s members didn’t want to negotiate and that it didn’t matter what they promised.
Finally, the White House had had enough. On Thursday night, immediately following the tense meeting in Ryan’s office, Mulvaney was dispatched to a Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol. The former Freedom Caucus member told lawmakers they had a choice: Pass the bill or live with Obamacare.
The president launched his charm offensive starting with Mark Meadows, a ripe target after having campaigned with the president in North Carolina. | AP Photo
The ultimatum hit some Freedom Caucus members hard. Some in the group began to wonder if they were doing the right thing. One conservative source in the group told POLITICO he felt perhaps they were becoming too “greedy.”
White House aides and GOP leaders, meanwhile, kept up their pleas on Capitol Hill until midnight, a senior administration official said. Trump worked the phones and began telling advisers he was worried, but he wanted the vote the next morning — regardless if the votes were there.
On Friday afternoon, just hours before the scheduled vote, Freedom Caucus members gathered at the Capitol Hill Club to get their bearings and rally when Vice President Mike Pence walked in unannounced. He pleaded with the group, saying Trump’s entire agenda depended on this vote. Pence told them he knew where they were coming from and begged them to trust him, a stalwart conservative, that this was the best repeal bill they could get.
Half of the group was moved by his personal appeal; the other half, recalcitrant, sources at the meeting said. Meadows, they said, was plainly distressed that he had to choose between the president he admires and the group he leads.
Despite the agonizing, the Freedom Caucus had already slammed the door. Just before that meeting started, Ryan had pulled Meadows off the House floor to check in one last time: Would the caucus back the bill or not? Meadows said “no.”
Ryan then headed to the White House to deliver Trump the bad news.
John Bresnahan and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.