House panel signals Russia probe document dump before midterms
Freedom Caucus ponders weakened future in minority
If Democrats wipe out the House GOP's majority in this fall's midterm elections, they could also severely weaken a group that has repeatedly been a thorn in their side: the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Life in the minority would be uncharted territory for the conservative group, which has wielded immense power in the majority by sticking together as a unified voting bloc and fighting unapologetically for its causes.
Outside the majority, the band of roughly 30 hard-liners would no longer have the same tools to shape the agenda and negotiate deals with their own leadership.
"I don't think they'll dissolve and there will be no more Freedom Caucus, but they will lose pretty much all, if not most, of their influence, because you can't hold Democrats hostage to negotiate the things that you want," said one GOP strategist.
The strategist suggested Freedom Caucus members would be little more than "talking heads" on cable television.
Lawmakers in the group scoff at such suggestions.
"The Freedom Caucus is strong, and we're going to keep getting stronger," said Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio). "The organization doesn't exist to use tactics, the organization exists to effectively be the Republican wing of the Republican Party. I think that will continue to be the case if we're not in the majority."
Some also note that Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) will still have the ear of President Trump regardless of the outcome of the midterms. Meadows's insights will be even more crucial for Trump if the president is trying to navigate a Washington where the levers of power are divided, sources close to the group argue.
"Even in the minority, where everyone acts like they're in the Freedom Caucus, the conservative thought leaders are still members like Mark Meadows and [Rep. Jim Jordan], and that won't change," said a GOP aide.
Nonetheless, lawmakers in the group acknowledge that the dynamics for the caucus would change in the minority, and some members are thinking about how to stay relevant if Democrats retake the House.
One strategy under consideration is to team up with some Democrats, such as centrists in the Blue Dog Coalition, where there could be common interests.
And some Freedom Caucus members say their beliefs on issues like civil liberties, prison reform and surveillance laws sometimes more closely align with Democrats than the rest of the GOP conference.
"The Freedom Caucus is happy to work with all of our colleagues," Davidson said. "I hope there is a way to work together on things that we agree on."
While the caucus is often painted as a group of inflexible, ultra-conservatives, Meadows actually has close relationships with lawmakers across the aisle, including Bay Area liberal Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Meadows may even join Cummings on legislation to allow Medicare to negotiate pharmaceutical prices on behalf of seniors.
"Hopefully he'll be on the bill," Cummings said. "Meadows and I have a great relationship. I'm not saying that just to say it - we do."
But whether Democrats would be willing to play hardball with their leadership and work with the Freedom Caucus, a group former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) once called "legislative terrorists," is another question. Democrats will face added pressure to toe the party line if they actually win back the House.
Democrats may be more inclined to work with Republicans in the middle than the far right.
"I could see them depending more on moderate Republicans than the Freedom Caucus," the GOP strategist said. "They would see moderates as more reasonable than the Freedom Caucus, even if they had to move a little bit more to the right or center."
The Freedom Caucus, like the rest of the GOP conference, says they are focused on keeping the majority.
And if Republicans do retain control of the House, they could be more powerful than ever.
The caucus is expecting to add to their ranks next year, and if the GOP keeps its majority it will almost certainly be slimmer. That would give the Freedom Caucus even more leverage as leaders come begging for their votes.
Founded in the years following the 2010 Tea Party wave that put Republicans back in charge of the lower chamber, the group has earned a reputation on Capitol Hill for staking out strict conservative positions and effectively bending the party to their will.
It has been willing to torpedo GOP-backed bills and take down procedural rules to get their way, even if it means making enemies.
This has given the group a seat at the negotiating table on a range of key issues, from health care to immigration to spending. They are also expected to hold the cards if there is a GOP race for Speaker; Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the group's founding chairman, has already announced his bid for the gavel should Republicans hold the majority after the midterms.
And the Freedom Caucus may try to deploy other tactics in attempt to exert influence in the minority.
"I was an army guy. You learned to navigate with a map and a compass. If you only look at the compass, you might be foolish and start trying to climb straight up a cliff," Davidson said. "And I think the Freedom Caucus has proved that you keep climbing, but there's a smarter way to do it."