Conservative Groups Won't Be Sidelined, Health Vote Shows
In the Oval Office earlier this month, President Trump met to discuss health care reform legislation with some of the conservative group leaders who would scheme to derail it.
Seated around the Resolute Desk on March 8 were Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation; Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots; Club for Growth President David McIntosh; Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action; Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks; and Tim Phillips, president of the Koch brothers’ advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity.
“This is going to be great,” Trump told them, according to a CNN report. “You’re going to make it even greater.”
But on Friday, when the American Health Care Act met an undignified death in the House, those conservative groups were cheering its demise, along with the like-minded House Freedom Caucus. Far from working with the president to push the bill, they had actively sought to undermine it, citing concerns that it did not go far enough to roll back Obamacare.
Trump took notice on Twitter Sunday:
Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 26, 2017
If conservative groups wondered what role they would fill in Trump’s administration, the health care fight was instructive, showcasing them as a resilient, powerful contingent. It marked a “defining moment” for conservative groups, said Alyssa Farah, spokesperson for the House Freedom Caucus, sending a clear signal that its members would not be silenced or sidelined with a Republican president in charge.
The moment also reaffirmed an alliance that could frustrate future efforts by the president and Republican leaders, with the groups enabling and emboldening ultra-conservative lawmakers to derail major consensus legislation that does not meet their policy standards.
In the AHCA debate, conservative groups’ “coverage and support ... meant a lot to my members and gave them a little more confidence taking a hardline stance,” said Farah.
But a backlash is brewing, and not only on the president’s Twitter feed. A Wall Street Journal editorial published Sunday charged that “much of the current conservative establishment profits from fanning resentments, not governing.”
“Legislative compromises don’t help Heritage Action raise money for its perpetual outrage machine,” the editorial read.
Such qualms are familiar to many Republican lawmakers, who have for years faced pressure from conservative groups to fall in line with their priorities or face political repercussions. A “key vote” by a top group, affecting the “scorecards” they maintain to rate lawmakers, could flip enough votes to torpedo a bill. And where party leaders have called for pragmatism, conservative groups have more often cheered principled obstruction — as when Sen. Ted Cruz forced a government shutdown over Obamacare.
Said one senior aide to a House Freedom Caucus member, “They’re the Leviathan of Washington.”
With that reputation, conservative groups’ opposition to AHCA wasn’t exactly a surprise. But many Republican lawmakers view the AHCA fiasco as laying down a new marker, foiling a rare opportunity for Republican-driven health care reform to be signed into law. If lawmakers have quietly tolerated conservative groups’ tactics in the past, some are now pledging to speak out.
“When you begin to realize what these groups are doing, they’re not fighting for liberty — they’re raising money,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican. To disrupt the status quo, he added, “you have to delegitimize them. That’s how you break them.”
In an interview with RealClearPolitics, AFP’s Phillips defended the group’s work opposing AHCA, saying, “It’s ironic, surprising and deeply disappointing to be attacked because we’re simply being consistent in asking Republicans to keep the promise they made.”
“There’s no victory lap here, because all we did was avoid a negative,” Phillips added. “We did not achieve the goal we spent seven years working on, which is to repeal Obamacare.”
Many Republican lawmakers argued that a full repeal, as called for by leading conservative groups, would not be feasible now that the Affordable Care Act has taken effect and people have come to depend on elements of it. House Republican leaders insisted that they had no option but to work within the existing framework. But one critique of AFP, Heritage and others has been that their objectives aren’t always moored to a sense of what is realistic or possible.
“These are some of the same people who said shutting down the government would somehow magically repeal Obamacare,” said Rory Cooper, a former aide to then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, “so forgive me if I don’t trust their strategic skillsets.”
Phillips, for his part, points out that House Republicans voted dozens of times over the past few years to fully repeal Obamacare, while Obama was still in office. “Were those show votes?” Phillips said. “I hope not.”
If the AHCA fight is predictive, Republican congressional leaders and the president could face a similarly daunting dynamic on future legislation. AFP, for example, has already laid down a marker on tax reform, pledging to oppose any plan that incorporates a border adjustment tax — which Speaker Paul Ryan and President Trump have promoted.
And unlike Trump, who has no serious outside political organization to speak of, conservative groups have the resources to amplify their stance and fight back. During the AHCA debate, the Club For Growth bought television ads in Republicans’ home districts, while AFP pledged a seven-figure fund to defend lawmakers who opposed the bill.
“Former Republican presidents had more partners on the outside who were ready and willing to help shape their legislative mandates than President Trump has now,” said Cooper.
To pass any major legislation, Kinzinger suggests House Republicans will need to forsake the Freedom Caucus and begin working with moderate Democrats when possible. “I think that’s going to have to be the new coalition,” he said.
Phillips said such a realignment “would be the most dramatic departure from promises and an avowed philosophy in the modern era, and so we would certainly hope that would not happen.”
Another realignment is possible if Freedom Caucus members decide to abandon their hardline position or leave the group altogether — as Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, decided to do after the AHCA failed.
“Saying no is easy, leading is hard, but that is what we were elected to do,” Poe said in a statement over the weekend. “Leaving this caucus will allow me to be a more effective Member of Congress and advocate for the people of Texas. It is time to lead.”
Poe isn’t alone among his colleagues, many of whom maintain high expectations for what they might accomplish with Republican majorities and an ally in the White House. If Trump is a professed dealmaker, however, he and Republican leaders must learn to work around a constellation of conservative groups and lawmakers with little interest in compromise.
The alternative — more failure — is painful for congressional Republicans to contemplate.
“I talk to members who say, ‘Why am I even here?’” said Kinzinger. “We can’t do what we set out to do.”