I don’t think there is any formal list of the members of the House Freedom Caucus, but it appears to have about 30 members. At the moment, there are 240 Republican members of Congress and 194 Democratic members, with one seat vacant due to the resignation of Jason Chaffetz of Utah. Assuming all members are voting, the Speaker needs 218 votes to pass a bill.
If the roughly 30 members of the House Freedom Caucus refuse to support a bill, that gives Speaker Ryan about 210 votes. On some issues, he might be able to find eight to ten Democrats who will support him, but that’s simply not the case on a bill to repeal or replace Obamacare.
Now, there are some bills that absolutely need to pass. Foremost among these are the appropriations bills that fund governmental operations. Without these bills, the government shuts down. This can be resolved for a while by passing temporary bills to keep the government funded at previous levels, but then the Freedom Caucus needs to support those continuing resolutions, too, or the Speaker still needs to go to the Democrats for votes. Another prime example of a must-pass bill is one that raises the borrowing or debt limit of the federal government. During the Obama administration, Speaker John Boehner had to go to the Democrats repeatedly to get the votes he needed to pass these kinds of bills. Eventually, this irritated the House Freedom Caucus enough that they forced Boehner into retirement and replaced him with Ryan.
We’re rapidly approaching a new situation in which the House Republicans will have a different kind of must-pass bill on their plate. This will be a bill that becomes necessary if the Senate cannot pass any version of their Better Care Reconciliation Act.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, is not happy about talk that Senate Republicans might give up [the] effort [to pass the Better Care Reconciliation Act] and instead work with Democrats on legislation to shore up troubled insurance markets.
“If we’re waving the white flag on something that we’ve campaigned against for many years, it is not a good sign for what comes down the pipe. How many white flags will we raise just when the going gets rough?” Meadows told The Hill in an interview.
“It’s incumbent on us to work, to negotiate and find a happy medium that gets 51 votes in the Senate, 218 votes in the House and send it to the president,” he added.
Meadows is reacting in part to comments [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell made Thursday that suggested he might be getting closer to throwing in the towel on the healthcare effort.
“If my side is unable to agree on an adequate replacement, then some kind of action with regard to private health insurance markets must occur,” McConnell said at a Rotary Club meeting in Kentucky.
What McConnell is saying is that the Republicans don’t have the option of leaving the insurance markets the way they are. If they can’t pass a replacement bill, they’ll have to pass a different bill that shores up the insurance markets, and they’ll have to do that with a 60-vote majority which will require that at least eight Democratic senators agree not to filibuster. Any bill with that level of buy-in from Democrats will not be acceptable to the House Freedom Caucus and it’s highly unlikely that their members will vote for it.
This situation, should it develop, gives the Democrats in both the House and the Senate tremendous leverage because their votes will be needed. McConnell is using the threat of this unhappy scenario to try to pressure his members to rally around his bill. But he’s not lying about what will happen if they don’t.
The House Freedom Caucus and folks in the Senate like Ted Cruz are in deep denial about this and they have come up with something that they think can serve as an escape hatch.
Meadows said House conservatives could also be amenable to a straight ObamaCare repeal bill that has a longer transition of three years instead of the two-year implementation schedule in the 2015 repeal measure that the Senate and House passed but former President Barack Obama vetoed.
A straight repeal vote, even one with a three-year delay, will not have the votes in the Senate for a variety of reasons, including that too many Republican senators are committed to protecting people with preexisting conditions and/or the Medicaid funding that their state has accepted by agreeing to expand Medicaid eligibility. But even if the Republicans did have the votes, they still couldn’t repeal all of the Affordable Care Act using the budget reconciliation rules that are in effect to allow passage without the threat of a filibuster. The House Freedom Caucus chairman Meadows recognizes this, which is why he has a fallback position.
The Senate healthcare bill includes a $50 billion short-term market stabilization fund covering years 2018 through 2021 but that is only palatable to conservative lawmakers because it would provide a bridge to new marketplaces with less federal regulation.
Talk of spending billions of dollars on the insurance marketplaces to keep the broad structures of ObamaCare in place is a non-starter with Meadows and allied House Republicans.
“To suggest that we’re going to bail out insurance companies when we’re not repealing or replacing ObamaCare — that’s what it would be,” he said.
If the Senate healthcare bill grinds to a stalemate, Meadows said he and other House conservatives would be willing to consider market stabilization measures attached to legislation that replaces as much of ObamaCare as possible under Senate rules.
“If we only have a repeal without a replace can I see a market stabilization measure being put forward in the Senate and the House, yes,” he added.
But to stabilize markets to keep ObamaCare on the books is unacceptable to House conservatives, he explained.
To pass this bill with no Democratic votes, the Republicans will have to find a sweet spot where the House Freedom Caucus is satisfied that the bill “replaces as much of ObamaCare as possible under Senate rules.” That’s not quite the same thing as replacing as much of ObamaCare as is possible considering the need to win fifty out of fifty-two Republican votes in the Senate.
The key thing to remember is that the Senate will need 60 votes to pass a market stabilization plan if they can’t succeed in passing McConnell’s reconciliation bill. And that is where things appear to be headed.
At that point, the House Freedom Caucus will have to decide whether or not they’re willing to [as they put it] “bail out insurance companies when [they’re] not repealing or replacing ObamaCare.” The chances that they’d be willing to do this are exceedingly low, but the Republican leadership would consider such a bill absolutely necessary.
This would then create the same kind of tensions that led to Boehner’s resignation as Speaker.
Pretty much the same type of thing will happen again when it comes time to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling. If the House Freedom Caucus won’t provide the votes for these things, it will force the House leaders to go to Nancy Pelosi for votes, and those votes will come with conditions.
In the past, Pelosi was willing to accept very bad deals because she didn’t want Barack Obama to get blamed if the government shut down or we defaulted and destroyed our credit rating. But this time around, it would be President Trump who would take those hits. She’d want to ask for a lot more, especially considering that agreeing to provide votes for the debt ceiling allows the Republicans to avoid taking responsibility and then they’ll run against the “big-spending” Democrats who acted responsibly in their stead.
In other words, during the Obama administration, Pelosi was given a ransom note. This time, she’s the one who gets to set the terms.
All of this is happening because the Republicans decided to pursue a legislative strategy this year that required them to vote as a unified bloc and would not necessitate making any concessions to the Democrats. They set up a dual budget reconciliation process that was supposed to enable them to repeal Obamacare in the Senate with 50 votes and then pass a tax reform through the Senate, also with 50 votes.
But they can’t vote as a unified bloc in large part because the House Freedom Caucus makes unreasonable demands.
They’re about to get their comeuppance on all of these issues, and it will be interesting to see how they respond. Last time, they responded by ousting their leader. This time, they’ll have the White House added to the mix. At some point, the White House will have to take sides, and if they come down on the side of the leadership, things will get pretty tense.