The House Freedom Caucus doesn’t have a Web site. It’s not completely clear exactly who belongs to the group. But in the just-completed fight over Homeland Security funding, it was hard to miss the influence of the insurgent conservative bloc as it clashed with GOP leadership.
The small group of far-right renegades has emerged as the latest embodiment of the internal GOP resistance to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio); as a general rule, they are unpredictable, opaque and completely unwilling to back down from any fight against President Obama and his agenda.
As the unified Republican majority looks to the next big legislative battles over the debt ceiling, the federal budget and the Export-Import Bank, the Freedom Caucus may be the best illustration of how intra-party discord could dramatically slow the pace of business in this Congress and likely bring it to a complete halt.
In late January, nine House Republicans issued a joint news release announcing the formation of the Freedom Caucus. Among the group, three voted against Boehner for speaker in early January.
The chairman of the group is Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), a square-jawed former college wrestling champion who voted for Boehner but also received two votes of his own for the speaker’s job. In a Wednesday interview, Jordan said the caucus has no interest in a new campaign to topple Boehner. He sounded populist notes in explaining the group’s overarching goal.
“We’re here to stand up for those folks who we think get left out all too often,” he said. “Everyday folks. Working Americans.”
Jordan said the group meets at least weekly, typically on the first night when lawmakers get back into town after the weekend. Asked how many members the group has, he estimated there were about 30 but declined to name all of them.
“They can all speak for themselves,” Jordan said. “We just said we weren’t going to make the list public.”
What was clearly on display during the DHS funding standoff was a conservative yearning to do battle with Obama over the president’s executive actions on immigration, particularly his decision to defer the deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants.
Boehner has tried to take up that fight alongside his conservative colleagues, passing a bill that would fund DHS and remove money for Obama’s directives. But when it was clear that bill had hit an unbreachable roadblock in the Senate, Boehner retreated. With his back against the wall and facing a DHS shutdown, he tried to pass a three-week funding extension in the hopes of continuing to fight for the House bill.
Boehner’s three-week bill failed when 52 Republicans joined most Democrats in sinking it. And in that number lay the power of the Freedom Caucus.
The GOP dissenters included eight of the nine founding members of the caucus. Jordan, who voted against the bill, said he wanted a firmer commitment that the three-week stopgap bill would lead to a negotiated deal with the Senate.
On Tuesday, Boehner, in another jam, caved and gave Democrats exactly what they wanted: a long-term DHS funding bill with no immigration provisions.
“This is an unmitigated loss for conservatives,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a founding Freedom Caucus member.
Fighting what they see as unconstitutional overreach by the president is at the core of the group’s mission, and they see no shortage of new chances to wage that war.
“Are we getting the end goals? Not yet,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), also one of the founders. “But remember that we have a president that’s already on track to do a lot of things, we think . . . that can be very damaging to the country in terms of unilateral executive actions.”
But Republican leaders must balance the fight against Obama’s agenda with shepherding their own. They are confronting a series of deadlines on big issues.
Congress faces spring deadlines to fix a Medicare reimbursement rate for doctors and to fund federal highway programs. By the summer, it must address the Export-Import Bank, a entity that has divided the Republican Party.
If the protracted DHS funding debate is any indication, the longer-term deadline of funding the federal government for the next fiscal year will be difficult for Republicans to navigate. It promises to be a target for conservatives looking to use the power of the purse to fight Obama.
Many of Boehner’s allies have little patience for rogue Republicans willing to extend debates to the brink of government agency shutdowns.
“It’s posturing and rhetoric,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said, “You can’t allow 35 to 40 people to disrupt” the larger House.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a Freedom Caucus founding member, sees things differently.
“I think we’re trying to help them do the right thing,” said Salmon of GOP leadership.
Caucuses are as plentiful as smartphone apps on Capitol Hill. There seems to be one for just about every imaginable cause, policy or political persuasion. The Freedom Caucus is far from the first of its kind. There are other conservative groups, most notably the Republican Study Committee, a much larger group that has alienated some members.
“I actually think it’s a good thing that there are multiple organizations that can convey a message, and they aren’t necessarily linked together but there’s some cross-pollination,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an antagonist of the leadership who chairs the Conservative Opportunity Society.
For now, there are no signs those groups are going to soften their confrontational tactics.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Fleming declared.
Mike DeBonis and Paul Kane contributed to this report.