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Rivalry on right emerges between ‘the two Marks’

Rivalry on right emerges between ‘the two Marks’
© Greg Nash

In recent years, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) has burnished a reputation as a conservative hard-liner, unwilling to compromise with Democrats or his own GOP leadership.

But lately, it’s the chairman of another conservative House caucus, a fellow North Carolina Republican also by the name of Mark, who’s been taking a more conservative stance.

Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Mark Walker has staked out positions to the right of Meadows on ObamaCare insurer subsidies, disaster relief and tax reform as he seeks to reestablish the RSC as the dominant conservative voice in Congress.

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Meadows, the leader of a much smaller caucus that exerts outsize influence, recognizes that President Trump values results over ideology. The Freedom Caucus chairman has teamed up with both GOP and Democratic moderates, suggesting he thinks he needs to get in on bipartisan negotiations early or risk being cut out of the process completely.

The budding rivalry between “the two Marks” isn’t surprising: Walker, 48, and Meadows, 58, are both extremely ambitious, popular politicians from the Tar Heel State who are effective communicators with big personalities.

And both could use their current conservative posts as a springboard to a House leadership post, a 2020 Senate bid or other higher office down the road.

“There’s definitely a rivalry there, being from the same state and both leading these influential conservative caucuses in the House,” said a GOP source familiar with the North Carolina delegation. “And I don’t think they have much of a relationship.”

Meadows, a real-estate investor who represents the western tip of North Carolina, declined to comment on the different positions he and Walker have staked out but said generally: “Chairman Walker and members of the RSC do a fine job in trying to make sure the conservative voice is heard.”

Walker, a Baptist minister from Greensboro, N.C., also was reluctant to discuss Meadows and the Freedom Caucus, instead focusing on his efforts to restore the influence of the 160-member RSC, the largest caucus on Capitol Hill.

“One of the things that I ran on was the old Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial from 20 years ago that said, ‘Taste them again for the first time,’ ” Walker said in a phone interview. “When it came to the RSC, I felt like we had — in some ways we had lost our voice and I just brought that same adage as far as wanting people to hear us again for the first time.”

The RSC is being heard again, largely because of some bold moves by the group’s new chairman.

When Sens. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Health Care — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Senate blocks Dem measure on short-term health plans | Trump signs bill banning drug price 'gag clauses' | DOJ approves Aetna-CVS merger | Juul ramps up lobbying Trump signs bills banning drug pricing 'gag clauses' Senate defeats measure to overturn Trump expansion of non-ObamaCare plans MORE (R-Tenn.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care: House passes funding bill | Congress gets deal on opioids package | 80K people died in US from flu last winter Wilkie vows no 'inappropriate influence' at VA Dems push back on using federal funds to arm teachers MORE (D-Wash.) announced last week that they had struck a deal to save ObamaCare insurer subsidies known as cost-sharing reduction payments, Walker slammed the bipartisan agreement as an unacceptable “bailout” for insurance companies.

Meadows, who’s been working with moderate Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) on legislation to stabilize ObamaCare markets, applauded the Senate effort as a “good start.”

On hurricane relief in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, Walker called for the aid to be offset by spending cuts to other areas of government.

Meadows said that while he preferred offsets, he would not demand it, and underscored the need to get the emergency aid to the affected areas as quickly as possible. Both lawmakers eventually opposed a $36.5 billion disaster relief package that cleared the House this month, but Meadows’s remarks gave cover to some conservatives, including some from Texas, who backed the bill.

On tax reform, Meadows has been actively courting moderate Democrats in a bid to build bipartisan support for Trump’s tax plan — a tacit acknowledgement that the GOP may not be able to push a partisan tax bill through Congress. Meadows has held tax talks with Reps. John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiOvernight Defense: Mattis dismisses talk he may be leaving | Polish president floats 'Fort Trump' | Dem bill would ban low-yield nukes Dems introduce bill to ban low-yield nukes Trump is wrong, Dems are fighting to save Medicare and Social Security MORE (D-Calif.) and John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyTop-tier Dems begin making way to Iowa Election Countdown: Midterm fight heats up over Kavanaugh | McConnell sees energized base | Dems look to women to retake House | How suburban voters could decide control of Congress | Taylor Swift backs Tennessee Dems | Poll shows Cruz up 5 in Texas Dem 2020 primary season is unofficially underway MORE (D-Md.), plus a handful of other Democrats whom he declined to name.  

Walker said it’s fine if Democrats decide to back certain elements of the GOP’s tax plan. But the RSC chairman argued that, last November, voters handed Republicans full control of Washington to enact GOP policies.      

“Only three times in the last 100 years has a party even been able to keep the majority” with a president of the same party, Walker added, “so I don’t know how much time we have to get some of this done.”

For now, it’s too soon to know whether Walker’s actions are translating into conservative policy wins. In a phone call last week, Walker personally urged Trump to oppose the Alexander-Murray deal on the subsidy payments.

Soon after, Trump rescinded his previous support of the deal, tweeting that he couldn’t support an insurance company bailout.

But Walker said it would be presumptuous of him to take credit for Trump’s reversal.

“I did have a conversation with the president about it,” Walker said. “But I’m not going to sit here and act like some prima donna that it was due to my conversation, that I pushed back on this, and influenced him to come out and take another position on it.”

Both Meadows and Walker have had a rapid rise to power. In January 2015, Meadows and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a former RSC chairman, led a bloc of three dozen hardcore conservatives frustrated that the RSC had become too large, ineffective and too cozy with leadership to break off and form the Freedom Caucus.

Meadows first stormed onto the national scene that same summer, when he filed a motion to oust then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouston Chronicle endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — House postpones Rosenstein meeting | Trump hits Dems over Medicare for all | Hurricane Michael nears landfall Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger MORE (R-Ohio) from power. The move eventually led to BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouston Chronicle endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — House postpones Rosenstein meeting | Trump hits Dems over Medicare for all | Hurricane Michael nears landfall Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger MORE’s resignation that fall and made Meadows a regular guest on cable TV.

A year later, Meadows succeeded his political mentor, Jordan, as Freedom Caucus chairman, without any challenge.

Walker had been a freshman lawmaker with little political experience in September 2016 when he threw his hat in the ring for RSC chair. He squared off with a Freedom Caucus member, three-term Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) — and beat him.

The job has raised Walker’s national profile and could lift him to new heights. Vice President Pence, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceGOP on timing of Haley’s announcement: 'Unusual' and 'odd' Watchdog calls for investigation into Haley flights White House officials discussing potential replacements for FEMA chief: report MORE have all served as RSC chairmen in the past.

But if Walker and Meadows are looking to climb the leadership ladder, they’ll also have to contend with another powerful North Carolina Republican, Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry, Scalise’s right-hand man, who has political ambitions of his own.

With Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisLawmakers point fingers at Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi's death GOP senator on potential additional tax cuts: 'We can't go further into debt' GOP senator: If crown prince involved in Khashoggi killing, removal should be ‘explored’ MORE (R-N.C.) continuing to work on legislation providing a path to legalization for so-called Dreamer immigrants, Walker and Meadows may see Tillis as vulnerable to a 2020 Senate primary, sources said.

“I don’t think either one will run for governor. The lieutenant governor would be very hard to beat,” said the North Carolina GOP source. “But as he trends toward the middle, Senator Tillis is someone they could both gun for.”