There were rumblings just before the election that the Freedom Caucus might try to take out Speaker Paul Ryan. Now the group of rebel conservatives is locking arms with him — at least momentarily.
The fragile alliance has been sparked by their shared interest in finally tanking Obamacare, an eagerness to build momentum for the president’s agenda and a belief among hard-liners and leadership that each side has moved cautiously toward the other on health care.
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It marks one of the more unlikely turns in recent House Republican history. It’s a sight rarely, if ever, seen since the Freedom Caucus’ creation two years ago: The conservatives in Ryan’s corner for once, helping him and his establishment brethren in House leadership, as they scramble to round up the votes on a controversial bill.
Or, at the very least, not standing in their way.
“Politics makes for the strangest of bedfellows,” said Freedom Caucus member Mark Sanford. “Someone you may not have been working with on the last bill, you better stay friends with them because you may need them on the next bill.”
The South Carolina Republican is a perfect example. Just last month, President Donald Trump threatened to back a primary challenge to Sanford if he voted against the original version of the GOP health care bill — a message Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, personally delivered to his ex-colleague and friend.
Sanford now supports the new GOP Obamacare alternative and hopes Ryan (R-Wis.) and his team can pass it. “The Freedom Caucus is constructively engaged with leadership, with the administration, and it points to the way in which the caucus has been focused on ideas, not on personalities,” he said.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) led the drive to push then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) into early retirement in late 2015. But on health care over the past week, Meadows has been nothing short of a savior for Ryan, who reluctantly accepted the speaker’s gavel after Boehner left.
It’s unclear how many Freedom Caucus members will ultimately vote for the bill, which the White House hopes to see passed this week. But senior House Republicans and administration sources say the Freedom Caucus chief has delivered all but a few of the group’s roughly three dozen members to back the latest health care measure.
Freedom Caucus members opposed the original bill because it didn’t repeal major Obamacare regulations. The latest draft, however, gives states the option to opt out of key Obamacare requirements over what health plans must cover and how much insurers can charge sicker people with gaps in coverage.
Some conservatives have warmed to the deal Meadows struck with moderate Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) after he commissioned an outside study for his members that showed the proposal would lower premiums on the individual market by 55 percent. (The Congressional Budget Office is not expected to produce its own analysis of the latest bill for another week or two.)
With the new batch of conservative “yes” votes locked in, Ryan and his whip team have been able to focus on winning skeptical centrist Republicans to secure a majority. On Monday night, they still didn’t have the 216 votes needed for passage. But it was moderates and centrists they spent all day chasing — not conservatives.
“I think Mark Meadows has done a hell of a job” in winning over conservative support, said House Rules Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) while exiting a GOP leadership meeting Monday night. “He stayed after it rather than shying away. He didn’t have to be a part of this, but he chose to engage and learn more about the issue and try to make it better.”
Asked whether the Freedom Caucus’ endorsement of the bill last week amounted to a monumental shift in the standoff between leadership and conservatives, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) responded: “Our conference has been coming together more and more each week. Obviously, we’ve had some rough patches in the beginning, but you’re seeing a unification.”
The détente is very unlikely to last, however. Freedom Caucus members will, in all likelihood, rage against a government spending deal hatched over the weekend by Republican and Democratic leaders. Some caucus members grimaced when asked about “cheering” on leadership, even if their imperatives happen to align at this moment.
“It’s peace in the valley for five seconds,” one half-joked.
Allies of leadership also argue that Ryan wouldn’t need conservatives to bail him out if the Freedom Caucus had backed the original health care draft in the first place.
Rep. Dave Brat seemed amused by a question about a Freedom Caucus-leadership truce. The Virginia Republican said the group of conservatives has backed leadership bills before, including some budgets and last year’s 21st Century Cures Act tackling mental health and drug abuse.
“On this bill, we want to keep the president’s momentum going and the Republican momentum going,” Brat said. “And so, even though no one is totally happy, it allows us to get moving toward tax reform, which is the most important thing we’ll vote on this year.”
Brat also said leadership’s strategy in handling the conference has improved. Freedom Caucus members felt GOP leaders weren’t listening to their concerns when they crafted and released the initial draft. Now, conservatives have a seat at the table.
“Paul Ryan came out and said our amendment moved the ball forward and was good policy, and that was helpful,” Brat said. “Good will begets good will.”