The power of the House Freedom Caucus, says its leader, lies in “the power of negation."
“It’s the power of ‘no,’" said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., whose 40-member group of diehard conservatives in the House has been responsible for killing one Republican initiative after another in a year that was supposed to see the GOP agenda transformed from campaign ad into U.S. law.
With control of the White House and Congress for the first time in 10 years, optimism among conservatives on Inauguration Day was high: health care would be overhauled, the tax system would be streamlined and domestic spending would be cut. Instead, the House has left Washington until after Labor Day with nothing to check off of its to-do list.
Critics within the Republican party point their fingers at Meadow and his gang.
Meadows rejects the accusation that saying no is the Freedom Caucus’ main mission.
"It gives you great power on what things might happen,” he said of his group’s determination and adherence to principle. “It is just as critical for us to have the power of ‘yes.’”
But the yeses are hard to find, and as a result the caucus is widely seen on Capitol Hill as a chief reason the Republican agenda is flailing.
"They’ve created an approach that gives them enough power to have real influence on the outcomes," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, of Meadows’ caucus. "But there’s a real difference between being able to affect the outcome and really drive an agenda to where you want it to be."
While the caucus may drive the GOP establishment in Washington crazy, its tactics and philosophy play well with the conservative base that’s been crucial to Republican electoral success
Freedom Caucus supporters outside of Washington appreciate the group’s efforts to make sure the White House, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and the GOP establishment resist compromising with Democrats or even party centrists.
Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, agreed conservatives embrace the caucus’ strategy, even if it fails to get results.
"The Freedom Caucus can stem the tide a little bit and we expect them to do so, and we will applaud, cheer, and support them for doing so, but we don’t expect that they’re actually going to fix anything," Meckler said.
"They can extract concessions, they can slow the rate of growth, but they can’t actually do what needs to be done because Washington, D.C., collectively doesn’t have the will to do what needs to be done."
Several big fights loom in the months ahead. Freedom Caucus members are eager for big tax cuts, but Republican leaders and the White House want the cuts packaged with a more sweeping overhaul of the tax code. Meadows is due to co-host a rally for tax reform Wednesday along with officials from Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by the conservative Koch brothers.
Also ahead is a battle over raising the debt limit. Caucus members have never been enthusiastic about authorizing more borrowing.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin wants a “clean” debt ceiling. Some Freedom Caucus members, including Meadows, are backing a measure that would support a higher debt limit if Treasury sold off some assets, paid down the debt more quickly and took other money-saving steps.
The biggest skirmish this fall will probably involve crafting a budget for the fiscal year that begins October 1. Republican leaders have tried to get the caucus on the team. President Donald Trump even picked one of the caucus’ own, former Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, as his budget director.
Mulvaney, though, has proven to be a leadership team player. He played hardball with Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., a caucus member, who said the budget chief relayed a message from Trump threatening to back a primary challenger if Sanford opposed the leadership’s health care bill. He voted for the revised version of the bill in May.
Republican plans to pass a federal budget blueprint have stalled, largely because of caucus resistance. GOP leaders last week removed a border adjustment tax from their budget plan, as the caucus had asked. Yet Meadows and his group still were not satisfied with the budget proposal, saying it did not cut enough spending.
Passing that budget is critical for House Republicans. Not only will it set spending levels, but it also provides a procedural vehicle to effect changes in the tax system.
"It obviously adds a bit more clarity, but we need a whole lot more clarity on where we’re going on tax reform," Meadows said of the plan. "Is it a step in the right direction? Without a doubt…but there’s still not enough votes to pass a budget."
Lesley Clark of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed