WASHINGTON — During the health care debate in the House, it was common to hear complaints from some Republicans that their right wing members in the Freedom Caucus kept “moving the goal posts” on what they wanted in the bill, a traditional tactic for a group known mainly for trying to stop legislation.
But the passage of a revised American Health Care Act on May 4 signifies that the Freedom Caucus leader, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-NC, has come to terms with the idea that “yea” can be as powerful a tool as “nay.”
“We have one rule in the Freedom Caucus. You’ve got to be able to say no to leadership, but you’ve also got to be able to say yes to leadership,” Meadows told me recently in an interview. He added that some House Republicans “are not invited [to the group] because they can’t get to yes.”
That is not the kind of thing that you’d have heard from anyone in the Freedom Caucus in the past. The group, founded in early 2015, was known until now for only saying no—although the former chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, disputes that characterization.
“That’s what some people believe or want to say,” Jordan says. “I don’t think it’s accurate.” The group limits its chairman to a two-year term, and Meadows was elected by the group of three dozen or so members in December to replace Jordan.
The Freedom Caucus shift seemed to occur in April, after the health care bill went down in flames at the end of March. Meadows played a leading role in reviving the GOP effort to pass a health care bill to replace parts of President Obama’s landmark health care legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
And now, as the bill heads to the Senate, where it will be modified in ways that the House will need to approve, Meadows told Yahoo News in an interview that he sees compromise as a virtue, not a vice. That’s a new tune for the leader of the group that has caused endless headaches for Republican leaders over the past few years.
“There will be compromises on Medicaid expansion and on tax credits and how much they are and how much they’re applied,” he said of the Senate bill. In other words, as compared to the bill that passed the House, Meadows acknowledged that the Senate version will likely slow down the speed at which an expansion of Medicaid that was in Obama’s health law is clawed back, and that the Senate will also likely increase the generosity of tax credits for those who need help paying for insurance.
Compromise, Meadows said, “is a necessary word,” a view he credited to his career in real estate before entering Congress.
“Most of my life in the private sector I negotiated and if I didn’t bring two sides together I didn’t get paid. Compromise is a big part of that,” he said. “Some would suggest you’re not being true to your beliefs but I find it as a necessary component to make sure we get things done. People hate gridlock.”
Since 2010, when Republicans first took back control of the House from Democrats after four years in the minority, Congress has been increasingly beset by gridlock. Conservatives like Jordan were at the center of the 2013 government shutdown, which came to a head over attempts to pass a bill repealing Obama’s health law despite the certainty that the president would have vetoed any such legislation.
Hardliner rebellion was encouraged by the oversimplified narrative: that Republicans had failed to repeal Obamacare even after taking control of the House in 2010 and then the Senate in 2014. Even though there was no plausible path to repealing the law while Obama was president, it was an easy talking point for the right wing to blame Republican leaders like then House Speaker John Boehner for failing to fight hard enough.
But everything shifted once Republicans won the White House last fall. Suddenly there really was no legitimate excuse for failing to repeal and replace Obama’s health care law. For a group that had become comfortable and successful simply by opposing things, it was a rapid and disorienting shift.
And after the House failed to pass a bill on its first attempt at the end of March, Meadows and his Freedom Caucus colleagues came in for the bulk of the blame.
“The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” President Trump tweeted.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Tex., dropped out of the group, denouncing its intransigence. “No matter what changes were made, the goal post kept getting moved and at the end of the day, ‘no’ was the answer. And sometimes you’re going to have to say yes,” Poe said.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., wrote in the New York Times that Freedom Caucus members had a pattern of using purity tests as cover to promote themselves at the cost of the party and the country.
“In 2013, a group of conservatives who later became part of the Freedom Caucus won major concessions on the farm bill, and then still voted against it. In 2015, the caucus made demands for a free-trade bill that were clearly intended to kill the legislation. Their demands were not met and the bill passed without their support,” Kinzinger wrote.
“We are the Charlie Brown party, hoping that this time, things will be different. But time and again, the Freedom Caucus is Lucy — pulling the ball out from under us, letting us take the fall and smiling to themselves for making a splash. It’s a cheap tactic, not a way to govern, and enough is enough,” he said.
Meadows was clearly affected by the criticism, according to one former Republican congressman who said he could share his opinions more honestly if he remained anonymous.
“I think he got shaken up by the reaction to the failure of the health care bill the first time. I watched him and I think he was clearly influenced by the incoming he got,” the former congressman said. “When people start bashing you and you feel like they are making a pretty good point — when your friends or people who are generally aligned with you are bashing you — it doesn’t matter whether your constituents are 100 percent with you or not….I think he was impacted by the breadth of criticism, and that’s a big part of what brought him back to the table.”
For his part, Meadows told me that he could have stayed above the fray after the health bill’s initial failure.
“It would have been much easier for me to not look for a compromise,” he said. “And yet we couldn’t afford to just give up.”
Even Jordan, widely viewed in the House as more of a purely oppositional figure than Meadows, agreed that getting to yes should be a priority.
“A great example of what the Freedom Caucus is about is what you saw unfold and take place in the health care debate,” Jordan said. “The bill was produced. It did not comport with what we told the American people we would accomplish. We opposed it and engaged in a vigorous debate. When things were changed and the bill was improved, we supported it.”
Meadows, 57, has only been in Congress since 2013, and yet there he was standing right behind President Trump in the Rose Garden ceremony that the president held for a bill that has not yet become law. Beside him were House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who are both younger than Meadows and have spent a combined 28 years in Congress.
Meadows won his seat in 2012 despite having never held elected office before. He was helped by the fact that the Republican primary was crowded with eight candidates, and he lent his campaign $250,000 from his own bank account. He first gained notice in the summer of 2015 when he filed a procedural motion to unseat the House Speaker at the time, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, which helped set in motion the forces that led to Boehner’s resignation two months later.
But it was only in the past few months that Meadows emerged as a national power player.
Meadows is in little danger of losing his own seat, which is in a conservative district. But he recognizes that if he wants to have a bigger role in Republican politics than just leading a rump caucus, he’ll have to help produce results.
Meadows’ tone was more that of an establishment leader than that of a renegade insurgent. “While I may get criticized for some of the compromises, in the long term history of Congress people will see not only did we make a compromise and make policy better potentially for the American people, but hopefully we set an example for the days ahead when we’re going to have to compromise on other areas so that gridlock is something we’re talking about from a historical perspective,” Meadows said.
The North Carolinian knows that painful choices and votes lie ahead not just on tax reform and possibly infrastructure, but also on a final version of a health care bill, assuming the Senate is able to pass something and move it forward to the final stage: a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate bills.
But if the House had not been able to at least pass an initial version, Meadows said, he knew that the rest of the Republican agenda for the next 18 months would be imperiled. Tax reform, infrastructure and anything else of substance would have been almost certainly dead.
“There was probably an 80 percent chance that that was going to happen had we not found some compromise,” he said. “If that happens then we will have all failed.”