Freedom Caucus might stall Obamacare repeal

Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON — The most conservative and often rebellious congressional political faction within the Republican Party is headed in a new, policy-oriented direction this year — and it’s starting with Obamacare, says the North Carolina congressman who helped found the House Freedom Caucus.

Scott Perry

In the first days of the 115th Congress, U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows — now chairman of the caucus — signaled that he and other conservatives may tangle with Republican Party leaders over the timing of replacing the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare.

The band of nearly 40 conservative lawmakers in the Freedom Caucus met Monday to discuss whether they’ll oppose mainstream Republican efforts to immediately repeal Obamacare without a replacement. Meadows said after the nearly 90-minute meeting that no votes were taken and no final decision reached. Congressman Scott Perry, R-York County, is a member of the caucus but did not participate in Monday's meeting, according to a spokesman.

But, he said, there was “overwhelming consensus” that Freedom Caucus members are reluctant to vote on a budget resolution “vehicle” that would repeal the law but offer little specificity about what would replace it. He said members want House Republican leaders to “slow down” the budget reconciliation process and not hold a vote until there’s a plan to include a timeline of when replacement votes will be held.

If the group is successful, the push could put Meadows and the Freedom Caucus on the front line of shaping an overhaul to the nation’s health care policy.

Meadows, just elected to his third term from western North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, says repealing the Affordable Care Act without a backup plan could be bad for the federal government’s growing debt. And, he told McClatchy in a recent interview, it won’t make patients and insurers happy to live with uncertainty.

“We are going to be a lot more policy focused,” Meadows told McClatchy. “Even though we’ve offered a number of policy-driven solutions in the past, that’s not been the headlines.”

Instead, Meadows’ national profile is largely marked by his bold move against former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in 2015, when he filed a motion to “vacate the chair” — a rarely used resolution that effectively put Boehner in a defensive position against rank-and-file Republicans who said they felt dismissed in policy debates.

Boehner — whom Meadows criticized as trying to “consolidate power and centralize decision making” — resigned two months later.

Since then, the Freedom Caucus has at times antagonized more moderate Republicans and party leadership. In a high-profile budget fight last year, the group said it was willing to let the government temporarily shut down if Planned Parenthood wasn’t stripped of federal funding. And before the Freedom Caucus was formed, many of its founding and current members, including Meadows, took no-compromise stances over Obamacare funding that led to a 16-day shutdown in 2013.

In other cases, the conservative cadre of lawmakers has blocked bills on the House floor simply by siding with Democrats in procedural votes.

These hard-line tactics might be used less this year. Meadows said he wanted to help the 2-year-old Freedom Caucus be known for something broader.

“The arguments and the debates that we have need to be highly principled but highly important to the American people, too. What’s important to the American people … doesn’t necessarily follow along ideological lines all the time,” he said.

“There’s the left and the right. … But there’s that big center core where there’s a whole lot of movement to make things more conservative-oriented.”

In the new Congress, Meadows will ask his Freedom Caucus colleagues to publicly support around 20 bills at any given time. And, he said, he’d like half of those bills to come from moderate Republican members or Democrats.

Lawmakers across the aisle will be willing to listen and possibly cooperate with Meadows in certain areas, said U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He noted criminal justice restructuring, particularly, as a place where conservatives and liberals may find common ground.

“Mark is a cordial fellow,” Price said. “I like him personally.”

The Freedom Caucus, though, hasn’t made any allies among Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, Price said.

“It’s hostility to government and a hostility to spending in general,” he said. “You cannot do appropriations under those kind of limitations.”

Price is a senior member of the Appropriations panel, which controls spending legislation. Freedom Caucus pressure, Price said, has resulted in “budget patches” and short-term solutions rather than thoughtful fiscal legislation, which often requires bipartisan compromise.

Meadows said the incoming Trump administration would find a receptive audience with the Freedom Caucus.

On President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Meadows said there was a consensus that security needed to be better.

“The real question is how do you fund that?” he asked.

The Freedom Caucus, Meadows said, might be willing to take a more moderate fiscal stance on border security because, while expensive, it would help curb indirect strains on the federal budget associated with illegal immigration.

Other areas Trump has said he might pursue could be nonstarters for the Freedom Caucus.

“We’re not looking at any type of (Muslim) registry,” Meadows said. “A registry is not, constitutionally, a founding principle.”

Already, Meadows has a welcome package for Trump.

His staff waded through thousands of federal government rules and regulations — almost all of them adopted by President Barack Obama over his two terms — and identified nearly 300 that Meadows wants Trump to undo or void in his first 100 days in the White House.

Meadows said the 34-page document showed a “disturbing trend of the federal government unnecessarily inserting themselves more and more into the lives of hardworking Americans.”