Since the spring, House Republicans have lived through a relatively calm seven months, a period lacking the drama and infighting that have come to define their majority.
That came to an abrupt end Monday night, when members of the Freedom Caucus tried to grind progress on tax legislation to a halt.
These hard-right conservatives had no quarrel with the tax plan — they almost all voted for it — but they were looking for a hostage to grab and knew that this one would get everyone’s attention.
Their real target is the 2018 spending bill for federal agencies, along with a clutch of other must-pass items that conservatives oppose.
Members of the Freedom Caucus have been down this road before. They believe year-end packages turn into massive Christmas trees littered with colorful add-ons. This week’s rebellion was meant to remind House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s leadership team how little faith the conservative wing has in it to negotiate a good deal.
“If they have a good strategy all the way through, then we can get behind the strategy, but the strategy of ‘trust me’ never works here,” said Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), a co-founder of the caucus.
First they tried to take down a procedural vote to move the tax bill into final negotiations with the Senate. Then they threatened to block a stopgap funding bill that, if not approved by Friday, would lead to a partial government shutdown.
The conservative flank is even threatening to force Congress into session immediately after Christmas to handle the spending provision in the week leading to New Year’s Day.
These lawmakers want to separate the timing between the final version of the tax bill and spending legislation. The first spending vote, on a two-week extension of funding, is supposed to come this week — buying time for larger negotiations on a two-year budget outline that would devote more money to defense and domestic agencies.
To some degree, the Freedom Caucus had been going along with the “trust me” strategy since the spring — ever since its members received the lion’s share of the blame for the failure in late March to repeal the Affordable Care Act, finding themselves on the receiving end of angry tweets from President Trump.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the Freedom Caucus chairman, returned from the spring recess and struck a deal with GOP moderates that allowed Republicans to narrowly pass their version of the ACA repeal. Soon after, Ryan’s House approved a massive government funding bill with little fanfare.
In the summer, as the Senate failed to pass its repeal of the ACA, the House sped through all 12 of next year’s spending bills. In the fall, with surprising ease, Ryan ran up the score on his version of the tax bill.
Most lawmakers agree that the biggest reason for that run of success is that Trump, not Barack Obama, sits in the Oval Office. Trump’s standing among the most conservative voters remains strong. That makes it harder for rebellious lawmakers to defy Ryan if Trump is supporting a leadership call.
Freedom Caucus members have argued that Trump has tilted the terrain in their favor and made it easier for them to go along with decisions. “It’s good that we have a Republican president. We want to make sure that we help the country see that we’re getting things done, and I think that has a lot to do with it,” Labrador said.
But it was all probably too good to be true.
The most conservative House Republicans have traditionally opposed government funding bills, especially those coming at the end of the year.
Usually that does not matter, because those bills fund enough priorities — such as the Pentagon and other national security agencies, and the Labor and Agriculture departments — that a wide bipartisan majority supports the legislation.
The Ryan plan would involve passing a two-week extension of current funding to extend the deadline to Dec. 22, using the weekend before Christmas to force lawmakers to cut deals so they can go home for the holidays.
But House Democrats are balking at supporting even that “continuing resolution,” or “CR,” as the legislation is known, because they want to pass a bipartisan bill to protect from deportation up to 1 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
Without Democratic votes, Ryan will need to produce a majority entirely from his 240-member caucus, meaning he can afford to lose just 23 votes and still approve the stopgap bill.
Enter the Freedom Caucus, with its roughly three-dozen members. Freedom Caucus members know they can hold that bill hostage as they try to impose their will in the bigger negotiations over a two-year spending outline. They fear that if the final tax vote occurs within days of the budget framework, that spending bill could get loaded up with Christmas gifts for lawmakers to lock down their votes on the tax bill.
“If they come at the same time, who knows what else gets added to what I expect is going to be an already bad spending bill? That’s our concern,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a senior Freedom Caucus member.
Leaving a morning huddle, a vast majority of House Republicans were convinced that wrapping up all their business before Christmas was the more prudent course — that returning the week before New Year’s was pointless.
By midday, however, talks were drifting, and no one was sure what the plan was. That’s because the Freedom Caucus was back to its old ways.
“They were testing us a little bit, whether we had the resolve to take things down,” Labrador said, “and now they know that we’re willing to do it if they don’t listen.”