Wary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who as a conservative lawmaker in the House lambasted congressional dealmakers from the outside, is now the guy in the room where it happens whom Republicans are depending on to craft a coronavirus relief package.

Meadows, the former chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, is in a difficult spot.

His boss, President Trump, is down in the polls with less than 100 days to go before Election Day, largely because of negative reviews of his response to the coronavirus pandemic that has wreaked havoc on a formerly strong economy.

Republicans are in danger of losing the Senate majority, and GOP senators are badly divided over what to do with the coronavirus relief package — a fact that has undercut their leverage against a unified Democratic Party.

A $600 federal boost to unemployment benefits expired last month, as did a moratorium on certain evictions. More than 1 million people applied for jobless benefits on Thursday, and the nation and Wall Street are bracing for the monthly jobs report on Friday.

Meadows, a thorn in the side of former Speakers John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) at points in his congressional career, is telling whoever will listen that he’s willing to make a deal.

As Senate Republicans met for lunch on Wednesday, lawmakers teased Meadows about his Tea Party history, according to two lawmakers in the room. 

“Somebody said, ‘Is the real Mark Meadows dead?’” one GOP senator said, describing the exchange.

“He said something to the effect of, ‘The former me would have said no, zero, none,’” the lawmaker said, saying he laughed at the kidding.

Another GOP senator said Meadows assured the Senate Republican Conference at Wednesday’s meeting that he’s no longer the conservative bomb-thrower he was for years in the House.

“He made it pretty clear yesterday — I don’t know who brought it up — but he thought it was necessary to point out that he and Mnuchin are a team working for the president and anybody who thinks otherwise is mistaken,” the source said.

Mnuchin is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has negotiated coronavirus relief deals with Democrats — and who is viewed with suspicion by some Republicans. Meadows sometimes looks like the bad cop to Mnuchin’s good cop in the context of the latest talks.

Senate Small Business Committee Chairman Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), however, pushed back at such a suggestion, stating that he thinks Meadows and Mnuchin are on the page.

“I don’t think they have different roles. I think they’re a team working on this,” he said.

Meadows is seen as a confidant of Trump’s, and that’s his calling card with members.

“The best thing is he has the confidence of the president, at least right now,” the GOP lawmaker added. “He knows he’s in a different place right now.”

Meadows on Thursday said Trump is prepared to take action unilaterally if Democrats do not agree to a deal. The effort seems designed to pressure Democrats into thinking that Trump is willing to go ahead on his own if they don’t deal.

“At some point you have to understand that they’re not willing to make a deal. And that’s why the president is prepared to take executive action,” Meadows told reporters just outside the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“Certainly there are limitations with what we can do from an executive order point of view,” he added, “but we will be as aggressive and as robust as we possibly can be as we deal with trying to meet the needs.”

When he was a conservative House member, Meadows wasn’t just a thorn in the GOP Speaker’s side. He and other Freedom Caucus members were sometimes a stumbling block to some GOP senators who wanted to reach deals.

The GOP lawmaker who spoke about Wednesday’s ribbing of Meadows admitted “at first there may have been some hesitation” among GOP senators over trusting Meadows, given his anti-GOP establishment stands while a House member.

“I think he’s proven otherwise,” the lawmaker added, noting that Meadows is “very well spoken” and “gets along with members very well.”

Rubio, like other Republicans, blamed Democrats for the stalemate.

“Pelosi and Schumer think it’s politically beneficial for nothing to happen,” he said.  

Some Republicans think Meadows is playing an important role by keeping the White House and Senate Republicans on the same page as House Republicans, who tend to be more conservative. 

Other Republicans, however, remain skeptical of Meadows. While both Meadows and Mnuchin have both made themselves accessible to GOP senators, some lawmakers feel they haven’t given them a good sense of how an agreement will finally get drafted.

“I worry part of his job is to build up a confidence or trust with us so we share with him information, because he doesn’t share anything back with us in terms of where the administration is coming from,” said a third GOP senator.

The lawmaker said Meadows’s rapid transformation from conservative rebel to broker of a multitrillion-dollar coronavirus relief package is hard to fathom.

“How do you get somebody to advocate for something like HEALS [Act] when this is a guy who never, never voted or big deals, never voted for appropriations? How does he switch to a different perspective in terms of what we’ve crafted?” the source said, referring to the $1 trillion coronavirus relief proposal Senate Republicans negotiated with the White House.

Meadows in 2013 led conservative opposition to a government stop-gap spending measure in an unsuccessful effort to block the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The battle, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the upper chamber, led to a 16-day government shutdown.

Five years later, Meadows was at the center of another bruising fight that led to an extended shutdown. He played a key role in convincing Trump in December of 2018 not to sign a year-end spending package because it didn’t include the money he wanted to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

As recently as March of 2018, Meadows helped lead an effort to defeat a House rule that then-Speaker Ryan was trying to pass to clear the way for a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill to keep federal departments and agencies funded.

This history is shaping how some lawmakers view Meadows today.

Sen. Chris Coons (Del.), a moderate Democrat, on Thursday blamed Meadows for the slow pace of the talks.

“If you put us in a room to solve it, we’d be done in two hours. But Mark Meadows is in this room for the expressed purpose of representing the division within the Republican caucus,” Coons told reporters.

Some Republicans are growing increasingly doubtful of reaching agreement. 

“We might not get a deal,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) conceded to reporters.

Meadows on Tuesday, however, said “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t at least have some glimmer of hope” that a deal was possible.

At the same time, Meadows dismissed Democrats’ demand to spend more than $3 trillion on the next package.

“If we don’t reach a top-line number, there becomes very little, very little incentive to have further conversations. At this point they’re still at $3.4 trillion and going north,” he warned. 

Tags Boehner Chris Coons Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump House Freedom Caucus Jobs John Boehner Marco Rubio Mark Meadows Nancy Pelosi Paul Ryan relief bill Richard Shelby Steve Mnuchin Steven Mnuchin Ted Cruz Unemployment

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