House conservatives emboldened

 

A critical bloc of House conservatives has been invigorated by its victory over GOP leaders, who caved in a high-profile fight over a punished subcommittee chairman.

The reinstatement of Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsEx-Ukraine ambassador arrives to give testimony GOP seeks to gain more control of impeachment narrative Conservative lawmakers demand Schiff's recusal from Trump impeachment inquiry MORE (R-N.C.) is a small win for the months-old Freedom Caucus. But it could have broader implications when House Republicans pick a new leadership team after the 2016 elections.

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While Freedom Caucus founders insist they aren't focused on next year’s contests, the cluster of about 50 conservative rebels is gaining clout in the conference and will surely have a role to play if there's a choice presented to members.

House Republicans are heavily favored to keep their majority, given their 246-188 advantage over Democrats, and many believe the next election could serve as a chance to elect more conservative leaders — including a new Speaker.

Rep. John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerIs Congress retrievable? Boehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader MORE (R-Ohio) has held the top job since 2011 and says he’s running for a fourth term, but he’s seen a rising number of conservatives defy him in public leadership votes.

And if Boehner calls it quits, his top lieutenants — Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseFurious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Five ways Trump's Syria decision spells trouble Cheney slated to introduce bill to place sanctions on Turkey MORE (R-La.) and Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) — could face challenges from the right as they seek to move up the ladder.

Freedom Caucus founders say they don’t currently have a seat at the table. And they suggested the next set of races — held after the November 2016 presidential election — could see a full slate of conservative candidates vie for the five top leadership slots.   

“I hope that next time, there are races in every single position. Everything should be competitive. Everything should be reflective of the body,” said Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a Freedom Caucus co-founder, who in a phone interview this week signaled he was open to another leadership run.  

“As I said when I ran for majority leader, I don’t think it’s anybody’s right to become the next Speaker of the House or the next conference chair or any other position.”

The Freedom Caucus could be uniquely positioned to be a kingmaker in the next round of leadership contests.

Since its founding earlier this year, the group of approximately four dozen members has seen its stature grow, even as it keeps its membership a secret.

The fight over Meadows also suggests the Tea Party rebels, long an irritant to Team Boehner, are growing more organized.

To help Meadows reclaim his gavel, caucus members with backgrounds in the weeds of parliamentary procedures hit the books and discovered that GOP conference rules only allow a committee chairman to appoint subcommittee chairmen if a majority of the panel’s members don’t object. Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz's panel, they noted, was packed with Freedom Caucus members and their allies, including Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel Jordan10 top Republicans who continue to deny the undeniable Ex-Trump aide to tell Congress she objected to Ukrainian ambassador's removal: report A Republican Watergate veteran's perspective on a Trump impeachment MORE (R-Ohio), a leader of the group.

Armed with that knowledge, conservatives realized they could force Chaffetz (R-Utah) to reinstate Meadows, who had been removed for bucking GOP leaders on a crucial trade vote.

Over the course of several discussions, including a late-night meeting in the basement of Capitol Hill’s Tortilla Coast restaurant, Jordan and other caucus members hatched a plan: Call a closed-door, members-only meeting of the Oversight Committee and demand that Chaffetz reinstate Meadows. Otherwise the Subcommittee on Government Operations would remain leaderless, caucus members said.

The strategy worked.

“They went to the books and looked up the rules and realized that we have rights,” Rep. John FlemingJohn Calvin FlemingThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems aim to end anti-Semitism controversy with vote today Former congressmen, RNC members appointed to Trump administration roles Overnight Energy: Watchdog opens investigation into Interior chief | Judge halts Pruitt truck pollution rule decision | Winners, losers in EPA, Interior spending bill amendments MORE (R-La.), another caucus co-founder, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “A committee chairman can’t just do anything he wants to do, even when directed by the Speaker.”

The Freedom Caucus was formed, in part, to take on the larger Republican Study Committee, which many members felt had grown too cozy with leadership and too big for its own good. The new invite-only caucus provided conservatives with a political infrastructure, including a small staff and weekly meetings, that's helped improve communications and strategy.

And if Jordan, Labrador or other members jump into a leadership race next year, the conservative network could help even the playing field.

In his race for majority leader last year, McCarthy had the built-in advantage of his whip operation to help him defeat Labrador.

If the Freedom Caucus is “working votes on the legislative side, they are developing skills that somebody in leadership has,” said Dan Holler of the conservative outside group Heritage Action.

Jordan has told The Hill he has no aspirations to be the next Speaker. Other caucus members called any chatter about leadership races “premature” given that they’re 16 months away.

But Labrador said he’s “definitely keeping an open mind” about another bid for leadership. And Fleming said there’s a fervent desire from Freedom Caucus members to be represented among leadership and in the elite group of 20-plus committee chairmen, who are selected by a powerful committee comprised of Boehner and many of his allies.

A GOP leadership aide noted that the Steering Committee does include a few friends of the Freedom Caucus, including Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who was booted from the GOP whip team after voting against leadership on the same trade bill, but there’s been no move so far to oust her from the Steering panel.

“I think, as members of the Freedom Caucus, we do want to be sure we have equal representation on committees and in leadership. We want to be sure we have a balance of our conservative ideas and conservatives members. We want to have our share of representation,” Fleming said in a phone call from Louisiana.

“I don’t think we really quite have the representation …  that would maybe reflect the actual numbers,” he added. “I think there does need to be a better balance going forward.”

Boehner and his team frequently huddle in their offices with lawmakers, both individually and in groups, on a variety of legislative issues. But invigorated by the Meadows victory, caucus founders are now urging the Speaker to meet regularly with the conservative group.

GOP leaders “just got a pretty big, rude awakening last week when they realized not everyone agreed with their tactics” to punish Meadows and other conservatives, Labrador said.

“Maybe Speaker Boehner can start talking to the Freedom Caucus board instead of trying to reject us and shun us ...  so he can have a feeling of what other members of the conference are thinking about.

“You really think the Speaker would sit down with the Freedom Caucus?” a reporter asked.

“If he were a good leader, he would do it,” Labrador replied.

--This report was updated at 11:09 a.m.