There should be plenty of fireworks in Washington this week as the country lurches toward a potential debt crisis, the GOP searches for a new Speaker and Hillary Clinton prepares to testify before the Benghazi committee. Much of the excitement comes courtesy of the House Freedom Caucus, a small but influential group of lawmakers who are relentlessly challenging the status quo in the nation’s capital.
Formed in January with just nine members, the confrontational band of hardline Republicans has become a major force inside the Beltway.
Just ask House Speaker John Boehner. The Ohio Republican announced his resignation last month in part because he was tired of dealing with the group’s increasingly public resistance to his leadership.
In the wake of Boehner’s unexpected (and now postponed) departure, it’s worth taking a looking at this group whose influence is being felt well beyond its numbers.
Who’s in the Freedom Caucus?
From its humble beginnings in January, the group has blossomed to roughly 40 members. It’s hard to say precisely how many lawmakers are in the group because they keep their roster secret. Interesting trivia tidbit: The group is sometimes called the Tortilla Coast Caucus in reference to its regular meetings at a Tex-Mex restaurant by that name on Capitol Hill.
Roll Call listed 38 members in July but at least two of them have quit in recent months, as Reps. Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Reid Ribble (R-WS) left the conservative group to protest its hard-nosed tactics. New members have likely joined in the meantime.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), one of the group’s founders, serves as chair. Other founders who often act as the crew’s public face include Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI), Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Mick Mulvaney (R-SC). Eighty percent of members must agree on an issue before the group can take a stance and vote as a bloc on the House floor.
What do they want, exactly?
Members of the Freedom Caucus claim that they aren’t any more conservative than their fellow Republicans. Where they differ is how they think the House should be run.
The group wants to revamp House rules to create a “bottom-up” system that would take power away from House GOP leaders so that conservatives have more sway over the chamber’s process.
The quest for “regular order” includes giving more power to committee chairs and granting lawmakers the freedom to offer more amendments to legislation. Members believe this will help stop the trend of governing by crisis and unite a fractious GOP conference against the real enemy: President Obama.
How much influence does this group have?
At around 40 members, the Freedom Caucus is just a small fraction of the 247 Republicans in the House. Yet the group is large enough that the leadership has to deal with them in order to get anything done -- and if the caucus isn’t happy, that’s a problem.
In July, one caucus member, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), filed a motion that, if successful, would have forced the election of a new Speaker. As long as the group stuck together – and Democrats sat on their hands – they could have denied Boehner the necessary 218 votes to remain in his job. The motion, which could still be called up at any time, hung like a sword over Boehner’s head until he announced his resignation in late September, though he denies it played a role in his decision.
The caucus helped throw the chamber into chaos earlier this month when it announced it would back Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) over House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to replace Boehner. Afraid of getting the gavel with a bare minimum of support, or not winning it at all, McCarthy dropped out of the race.
Isn’t there already a Tea Party Caucus for House conservatives?
There is. It was founded in 2010 by future GOP presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachman (MN) and once boasted as many as 60 members. However, 10 of its flock were defeated in 2012 and the group largely went dormant.
It was rebooted earlier this year by Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), though no official roster for the limited-government group has been released. Huelskamp is also a member of the Freedom Caucus and appeared at a “Conversations with Conservatives” press conference with Labrador and other group leaders earlier this month. Days later, the two organizations teamed up with the Conservative Opportunity Society and the House Liberty Caucus to hold a forum for Speaker candidates.
What’s next for the Freedom Caucus?
A lot of that depends on the congressional calendar. This week all eyes are on House Ways and Means Committee chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) as he weighs a run to succeed Boehner.
Sources close to the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee told CBS News that he is open to a bid, provided he doesn’t have to give in to Freedom Caucus demands -- something that is sure to go over like a lead balloon with the group.
Meanwhile, lawmakers must chart a course to raise the country’s debt ceiling before Nov. 3 or face a first-ever default. Boehner could move a “clean” bill to deal with the situation before he leaves office, but it’s unlikely the Freedom Caucus will play along.
“If the debt ceiling is going to be suspended or raised, then we need to have concrete reforms,” Amash said during the Capitol Hill luncheon.
Then there’s the matter of funding the federal government past December 11, which could spark an all-out civil war within the GOP. Last month, Freedom Caucus members informed leadership they wouldn’t support any spending bill that included funds for Planned Parenthood, a focus of conservative anger.
In an earlier funding vote, every Democrat joined the GOP to pass the short-term continuing resolution. Still, more Republicans voted against the spending bill than for it, something the Freedom Caucus will likely seek to exploit in the weeks ahead.