This is not how the House Freedom Caucus planned it in the era of Trump.
The group of staunch conservatives, led by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., entered 2017 confident it would be the Capitol’s center of influence in a Republican-controlled government.
Emboldened by their success in past years, the caucus’ three dozen members thought they could successfully push an agenda that included repealing and replacing Obamacare, cutting domestic spending significantly, simplifying the tax code while slashing taxes and establishing a hard line on immigration.
But nine months later, with the Republican president giving up on his Republican Congress —for the time being, at least — and striking deals with Democrats, the Freedom Caucus has made little progress.
“Memo to Freedom Caucus: Trump base is the American people not a small faction of obstructionists!” Rep. Peter King, a center-right New York Republican, tweeted Thursday morning.
Freedom Caucus members were stunned last week when President Donald Trump cut a deal with Democratic leaders on tying hurricane aid to a three month extension of government funding and the debt ceiling. Thursday, caucus members got a fresh jolt as Trump appeared to make another deal without them, this time on immigration.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California announced they had the outlines of a deal with Trump to codify an Obama-era executive order sparing from deportation young undocumented immigrants who were brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents.
In exchange for passing that law before Trump rescinds it in six months – as he recently promised – Democrats agreed to support increased border security, though not the U.S.-Mexico wall that was the signature promise of Trump’s presidential campaign and a rallying cry for many on the right.
Freedom Caucus members denied any deal had been struck, insisting nothing had gone awry.
“There is no agreement. You can take it on good authority, there is no agreement,” Meadows said. “It’s a very complex issue but certainly is one that we’re not going to solve in one dinner with two Democrats.”
Though the White House refused to characterize the exchange as a deal, Trump himself seemed to confirm the outline during morning tweets and statements to the media.
The varied reports left some members of the Freedom Caucus dazed – and worried.
“The president has the right to speak with whomever he wishes,” said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala. “I just hope that he will exercise good judgment and understand that if you give amnesty to illegal aliens then the long-term effect is we’ll have more illegal aliens taking jobs from American citizens who very badly need those jobs.”
Conservatives were clear that they appreciated Trump talking to members of the opposing party – Republicans complained bitterly that former President Barack Obama didn’t communicate with them – but some worried that he may not be getting enough input from the right on critical issues.
“I've never taken the position (Trump) should not be communicating with Democrats in the House and the Senate,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a leading voice for tougher immigration laws. “I don’t take issue with that. I don’t think he has heard enough voices reminding him of his campaign promises...I want to remind him of his campaign promises.”
Rep. Dave Schweikert, R-Ariz., a Freedom Caucus member, offered some hope: “Ultimately, (Democrats) can make all the deals they want. We still control the floor.”
But the caucus, which provides no public membership list, and its allies do not have enough votes to control the entire process. Republicans control 240 House seats. Democrats control 194. One seat is vacant. If all seats are filled, 218 are needed for a majority. If Democrats stick together, it would only take 22 votes to win passage.
Last week, 90 Republicans voted against the debt deal, but it passed overwhelmingly thanks to the overwhelming Democratic support.
All this is a new challenge for the Freedom Caucus, which has wielded enormous influence since its founding in 2015, helping overthrow former Speaker John Boehner in 2015 and pulling the Republican majority further to the right.
But the caucus has been frustrated this year. It wanted the House to pass a debt ceiling increase over the summer,. The House didn’t do that.
It called for the House to remain in session rather than take a break in August, a futile request.
It urged Republicans to unveil a tax overhaul plan. That still hasn’t happened.
And though it has denied agitating for a leadership change, members openly complained about Speaker Paul Ryan’s leadership and tactics in recent weeks.
In the long run, many Republicans do not expect to lose on immigration.
“The speaker has committed to me that there will be no immigration-related bill unless a majority of the Republican conference is in support of it,” Brooks said.
“And he’s not going to go back on his word,” added Meadows.
“We’re not going to bring a solution to the floor that does not have the support of President Trump,” Ryan said Thursday. “And if we have the support of President Trump ... I believe will get a majority of our members.”
Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; @MurphinDC