New House conservative caucus divided in budget vote

New House conservative caucus divided in budget vote
© Greg Nash

Members of the new conservative House Freedom Caucus held a lengthy conference call Friday about whether they would stick together to support or oppose GOP leaders’ new budget strategy.

Caucus Chairman Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanSunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election House passes resolution condemning anti-Asian discrimination relating to coronavirus Republicans call for Judiciary hearing into unrest in cities run by Democrats MORE (R-Ohio), who led the call, backed the new approach, which included billions more for defense. But others on the line were frustrated the plan didn’t offset any of the extra spending, according to sources on the call.


By the time the phone call ended about 40 minutes later, there still was no consensus.

The vigorous debate foreshadowed Wednesday’s vote, where Freedom Caucus members splintered over supporting a backup GOP budget crafted after defense hawks balked at the lower spending levels in the original proposal.

Twenty-six Republicans eventually voted against the leadership-backed spending plan, including six of the nine Freedom Caucus co-founders: Reps. Justin AmashJustin AmashOn The Trail: How Nancy Pelosi could improbably become president History is on Edward Snowden's side: Now it's time to give him a full pardon Trump says he's considering Snowden pardon MORE (Mich.), Scott GarrettErnest (Scott) Scott GarrettBiz groups take victory lap on Ex-Im Bank Export-Import Bank back to full strength after Senate confirmations Manufacturers support Reed to helm Ex-Im Bank MORE (N.J.), Tim HuelskampTimothy (Tim) Alan HuelskampDemocratic-linked group runs ads in Kansas GOP Senate primary Cure for cancer would become more likely if FDA streamlined the drug approval process Emails show climate change skeptics tout ‘winning’ under Trump MORE (Kan.), Raúl Labrador (Idaho), Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyMick Mulvaney to start hedge fund Fauci says positive White House task force reports don't always match what he hears on the ground Bottom line MORE (S.C.) and David SchweikertDavid SchweikertHouse Democratic campaign leader predicts bigger majority Democrat Hiral Tipirneni wins Ariz. primary to challenge Rep. David Schweikert Ethics watchdog finds 'substantial' evidence of improper spending by Rep. Sanford Bishop MORE (Ariz.). 

All of those co-founders but Garrett voted against final passage of the budget.

The Freedom Caucus was expected to be a bloc of more than 30 conservatives who would vote together to pull GOP leadership to the right on fiscal matters. It flexed its muscle shortly after launching earlier this year, helping to torpedo a plan by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to fund the Homeland Security Department in late February.

But the group’s split on the budget signaled that the caucus won’t hang together and vote en bloc on every issue — a welcome development for Boehner and his leadership team, as they prepare for upcoming fiscal battles to replenish a highway fund, renew the Export-Import Bank and raise the debt ceiling.

The budget’s not the only issue this week dividing the Freedom Caucus. Members are also split over a major deal negotiated by Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that would halt cuts to payments for Medicare physicians — a so-called permanent “doc fix.” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), a physician, said the temporary patches Congress passes each year are bad policy, but some of his caucus colleagues are concerned that the deal would raise the deficit by billions of dollars in the short term. A vote is set for Thursday.

The recent fissures within the Freedom Caucus, its founders say, don’t diminish the influence of the emerging group — which carries enough votes to block GOP legislation unless leaders turn to Democrats for help. It’s actually by design that there’s dissension among members, founders contend.

Caucus leaders said they refuse to dictate how members should vote on bills and have said no one will be booted from the exclusive, invite-only group for voting against Jordan’s position.

“That’s the difference between the Freedom Caucus and the [broader GOP] conference. We’re OK with dissension, and we’re OK with debate. We want to hear everybody’s ideas,” Labrador told The Hill.

“It is not a top-down organization that’s telling the group, ‘we must vote this way.’ ”

As he did on Friday’s conference call, Jordan argued Wednesday that passing a House GOP budget could lead to a rarely used procedural tool called reconciliation that could help Republicans repeal ObamaCare. And over the weekend, he successfully pitched a proposal to GOP leaders to hold votes on multiple budgets, with the House embracing the plan that receives the most votes — a process known as “Queen of the Hill.”

But Jordan also has heard an earful from fellow Freedom colleagues who are furious that none of the extra $96 billion in defense spending is offset in leadership’s preferred budget. On the Friday call, two co-founders, Mulvaney and Garrett, took issue with the lack of offsets in the new approach, sources said.

“I think it’s unconscionable to be plussing up parts of the budget and not doing offsets,” Schweikert said in an interview on Wednesday. “I genuinely thought there would be unified position of, ‘We need to support the military. At the time same time we need to be fiscally disciplined.’ ”

Adding spending without offsets sets a bad precedent and “lets the genie out of the bottle.”

Meanwhile, Amash took to Twitter and Facebook to bash GOP leadership’s backup budget, known as “Price #2” and named for Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.).

Passing that plan would violate the 2011 sequestration budget caps and send the message “that more national debt is just fine,” Amash sounded off on Facebook before Wednesday’s votes. “We'll have joined with Pres. Obama in obliterating even the pretense of fiscal responsibility.”

To become a member of the Freedom Caucus, lawmakers must be voted in by members of the group. It’s not an easy process: Jordan said there are now three dozen members; another seven lawmakers have been knocking on the door.

Jordan, a former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) who’s been floated as a possible Speaker, said weekly caucus meetings are usually lively and full of debate — and he prefers it that way.

“When we have our meetings, most of the food gets eaten because we always have a good turnout,” the chairman said in a recent interview. “It is round and round.”

On the long-term doc fix, Fleming has been aggressively lobbying other conservatives to get on board, including through a speech Wednesday at an RSC meeting.

But he’s not sure how many minds he’s changed in recent weeks.

For example, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a fellow Freedom co-founder, has been lobbied on the Medicare deal by both Fleming and physicians back home but he told The Hill on Wednesday he was still on the fence.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the proposal would hike the deficit by $141 billion during the first 10 years. But GOP leaders and other backers have argued that Medicare reforms spelled out in the plan, including means testing for wealthy seniors, would lead to greater savings after the first decade.

Almost all Freedom Caucus colleagues “agree with the reason why I’m voting yes,” Fleming told reporters Wednesday. “But some of them are still hung up on the fact that it is not paid for in the first 10 years, and they may vote against it just because of that.

“I think some will come over to my way of seeing things, and some of them won’t.”