The House Freedom Caucus is a band of deeply principled opponents of the welfare state, whose greatest legislative achievements include blocking the Obama administration’s proposed cuts to Social Security and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
This discrepancy between the caucus’s ideological goals and the actual consequences of its actions is a product of the far right’s conviction that everyone would accept Ayn Rand as their personal lord and savior, if only elected Republicans adhered more faithfully to her gospel. Thus, most Freedom Caucus members would rather perform a reactionary rendition of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on C-Span than support ideologically impure legislation that shifts American policy in the direction of their ideals.
And this seems to be fine with their constituents, many of whom are likely keener on anti–big government rhetoric than cuts to their government benefits.
But it’s decidedly less fine with the GOP’s leadership. The caucus’s latest act of intransigence helped deal Donald Trump an embarrassing defeat on his big health-care bill, while all but destroying Paul Ryan’s dream of passing permanent tax cuts for the rich.
Neither man is pleased. Following Trumpcare’s untimely death, the president accused the caucus of “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” — and suggested that he was inclined to forgo their votes on future matters, and work with Democrats instead.
In an interview with CBS’s Norah O’Donnell Wednesday, Ryan reframed Trump’s suggestion as a threat: Cooperate with the president or the Democrats get input.
“If this Republican Congress allows the perfect to be the enemy of the good, I worry we’ll push the president into working with Democrats,” Ryan said. “I don’t want that to happen. You know why? I want a patient-centered system. I don’t want government running health care.”
In recent days, the House Freedom Caucus had engaged in negotiations with the GOP’s (relatively) moderate “Tuesday Group,” in hopes of reviving Obamacare repeal. But these talks broke down Wednesday night, due to the rather obvious problem that Trumpcare was too right-wing for the moderates — and too left-wing for the hard-liners — making a mutually agreeable compromise impossible.
The following morning, Trump issued his sharpest rebuke of the caucus to date.
For a president to (ostensibly) threaten to back primary challenges against roughly three dozen members of his own party is extraordinary. And it’s hard to imagine that this kind of open confrontation is going to win any hearts and minds. After all, Trump already tried and failed to intimidate the caucus into acquiescence ahead of the health-care vote. Since then, the president’s approval has fallen to a record-low 35 percent, while some Freedom Caucus members returned to their districts as conquering heroes whose bravery had preserved the opportunity for true repeal.
Early reactions from the caucus evince little fear of the president’s disapproval.
(Massie apparently believes that Trumpcare polled poorly because it didn’t throw enough people off of Medicaid.)
Nonetheless, Ryan voiced support for Trump’s sentiment Thursday, saying that he shared the president’s “frustration.”
The coming weeks are bound to further heighten intra-party tensions. Without a new continuing resolution or spending bill, the government will shut down on April 29. Between now and then, congressional Republicans have only eight legislative days to reach an agreement. Traditionally, the party’s far-right flank has refused to vote for such measures unless they contain a poison pill — a repeal of Obamacare, elimination of Planned Parenthood funding, etc. — that would make them dead on arrival in the Senate, where any spending bill will need to garner at least eight Democratic votes.
It was one thing to shut down the government over such demands when there was a Democrat in the White House who’d take the blame. It’s quite another when a shutdown could further weaken an already unpopular Republican president.
And so, the GOP leadership is “hoping to put together a spending bill that can win approval from enough Democrats to render negotiations with most intransigent conservatives unnecessary,” the Washington Post reports.
But while Ryan can plausibly keep the government open without the House’s far-right fringe, he’s almost certain to need them when he moves on to tax cuts.
At that point, Democrats will just have to sit back and hope that the House Freedom Caucus can keep letting the “perfect” be the enemy of the bad.