The House Freedom Caucus was so successful in opposing a version of the American Health Care Act that one of the bill’s authors declared it “dead” and the White House signaled that it planned to walk away from the issue entirely. Oddly, though, HFC chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina appeared on ABC Sunday morning and spoke about the bill as though its fate were still being debated.
Congress, he insisted, is still in the “negotiation process” and “this is not the end of the debate.”
Using a somewhat convoluted analogy to a football game, Meadows suggested that declaring the AHCA dead after House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Trump were forced to pull it from the floor on Friday was like declaring a game over at halftime.
“We may be in overtime,” he said. “At the end of the day, the most valuable player will be president Trump on this.”
Meadows added, “I still believe there is a good chance if moderates and conservatives can come together that we repeal and replace Obamacare, bring premiums down, cover more people.”
It was unclear why Meadows seemed so intent on assuring host George Stephanopoulos that the health care bill is still in play on Capitol Hill after his caucus successfully undermined it within the GOP. But one possibility is that Meadows and other members of the Freedom Caucus are taking seriously Trump’s threat on Friday to begin working with Democrats and less doctrinaire Republicans on an alternative effort to reform the Affordable Care Act.
The strength of the Freedom Caucus lies in its ability to block the Republican House majority from passing bills on party-line votes if its members deem them insufficiently conservative. But in a world where the Republican majority makes common cause with a significant number of moderate Democrats on compromise legislation that gives both groups some of what they want, the Freedom Caucus would be effectively marginalized.
To be sure, there is no obvious path to bipartisanship in a Congress that is as ideologically divided as it has ever been. But Trump’s professed willingness to work with Democrats, and the fact that he really seems to hold few firm conservative principles, might be making Meadows and some of his caucus members nervous.
In fact, in an appearance on Fox News Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus suggested that was exactly the point of Trump’s talk of bipartisanship.
“I think it’s more or less a warning shot that we’re ready to talk to anyone, that we always have been, and I think more so now than ever it’s time for both parties to come together and get to real reforms in this country, whether it be taxes; whether it be health care; whether it be immigration; whether it be infrastructure. This president is ready to lead.”
Priebus hammered the message home on Sunday morning, telling host Chris Wallace multiple times that the White House is interested in working with moderate Democrats.
Much of the criticism of the Freedom Caucus, especially from their fellow Republicans frustrated with the obstruction of the AHCA, focused on what many described as an unwillingness to “take ‘yes’ for an answer.” The group wrung major concessions out of House leaders and the White House, but because they didn’t get everything they wanted, they refused to go along with the bill in the end.
On Sunday, Meadows seemed to signal that the ideological rigidity of the Freedom Caucus may not be such an impediment to other Trump priorities, such as reform of the tax code.
One of the hallmarks of the Freedom Caucus is its members' insistence that they are “fiscal conservatives.” To most people, fiscal conservatism typically means opposition to deficit spending and a determination to reduce the national debt. Indeed, the Freedom Caucus has typically been one of the toughest nuts for Republican leaders to crack when it comes to raising the debt ceiling.
Meadows said that he expects his members will “help” the president on tax reform and that when it comes to funding the government, “there’s not going to be an issue there.”
Surprisingly, Meadows said that he personally would be open to reform that cuts taxes for Americans but doesn’t include offsetting cuts in spending or increases in revenue designed to prevent the deficit and debt from rising.
“Does it have to be fully offset? My personal response is no,” Meadows said.
He suggested that feeling may be less rare within the Freedom Caucus than many expect. “I think there’s been a lot of flexibility in terms of some of my contacts and conservatives in terms of not making it totally offset and that’s a move that we’re trying to do to provide real relief and economic growth.”
That would again pit Meadows against Ryan, who typically insists that tax reform packages be at least revenue neutral, but the show of flexibility might be more welcome to Trump, who frequently appears to be more concerned with being perceived as a “winner” than he does with ideological or policy purity.