NEW YORK (ViaNews) – The lead character of Samuel Tayler Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ wore an albatross hung around his neck. It served as a symbol of his hubris, which led to utter failure. This could well describe the Republican Party as it is weighed down by a small Republican faction: the Freedom Caucus.
The Caucus was formed in January of 2015 by several Republicans of the far right. They had grown tired of bowing to moderate Republicans on key issues. Since that time the Freedom Caucus has firmly resisted any policies that countered these far-right commitments.
The Freedom Caucus consists of about thirty members, comprising about 8 percent of the House of Representatives. The group does not disclose the names of their members, so total membership is unknown. However, this does not stop its members from advertising their involvement. The roster is made up of both conservative and libertarian Republicans. The Caucus has never released a clear mission statement. Whatever it may be, it is too far right for the majority of the Republican Party.
The first major confrontation between Caucus members and fellow Republicans was in September of 2015. House Speaker John Boehner was accused by the Caucus of favoritism towards Moderate Republicans. They felt he was against their group since the founding members were instrumental in the government shutdown of 2013. Boehner had been against using this tactic at the time. With their combined political clout, the Freedom Caucus fought against Speaker Boehner until he resigned. After some political infighting, Paul Ryan eventually took the vacant position with the blessing of the Freedom Caucus.
The birth of the Caucus and Boehner’s fall took place during President Obama’s administration so their obstructionist activities had little effect on national policy. Although not a member of the Caucus, Senator Mitch McConnell set the tone early in Obama’s tenure: Republicans would deny any and all legislation the initiated by Democrats. Led by the Caucus, Republicans in lockstep refusal to vote for any legislation offered by Democrats. Real trouble did not appear until Donald Trump won the presidency in November, 2016.
With a Trump presidency, Republicans now controlled the Executive and Legislative branches of the government and could pass any legislation they deemed fit. There was little Democrats could do to stop proposed legislation or controversial appointments. Fear spread as moderates and liberals braced for the worst. Their fears soon proved unfounded. What happened in the following weeks surprised the nation.
Attempting to follow through with his promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, Trump demanded a bill on his desk for signing. Republicans, it seems, had not expected Trump to be elected. For seven years they had fought to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but had never prepared a viable alternative. In haste, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and several hand-picked Republicans wrote an alternative–the American Health Care Act. This bill was quickly dubbed “Trumpcare” by American media.
The American Health Care Act was rejected by the majority American public. With an approval rating of 13%, Republicans still expect to push it through with little effort. They did not anticipate how the Freedom Caucus would respond. Republicans had the ability to push legislation without the Democrats, but they needed positive votes from all their members. However, Caucus members rejected Trumpcare because they felt it did not go far enough. There were still substantial portions of Obamacare remaining in the new legislation. Refusing to compromise, they withheld their votes.
After weeks of infighting, the initial version of the bill died without a vote. President Trump lay the blame squarely on the Freedom Caucus. In a tweet, he said: “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast.” Later he added: “We must fight them,& Dems, in 2018!” Rarely has a president called out a faction within his own party.
The next pass at repealing and replacing Obamacare took the demands of the Freedom Caucus into consideration. This time the new bill was too conservative for more moderate Republicans. After barely passing the House, the new version of Trumpcare died in the Senate with Senator McCain’s dramatic vote. It now seemed that President Trump’s new administration could not pass any legislation with or without the Freedom Caucus.
Rewriting the tax code is the Trump Administration’s most pressing agenda. This is a subject about which most Republicans feel passionate. Many Senators have linked their re-election races to tax reform. The Freedom Caucus demands tax reduction and wants to balance the budget by cutting benefits and services. Republicans are now at an impasse with their signature agenda. The fiasco with Trumpcare taught them that the Freedom Caucus will happily kill any bill which doesn’t fit their demands. The reality is, Republicans are in a quagmire. Without the support of the Freedom Caucus, their legislation will fail. With their help, their legislation will fail.
The Freedom Caucus albatross will hang around the Trump White House neck unless the Freedom Caucus changes their core beliefs in some dramatic way. This is unlikely. The current Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows has demanded involvement in rewriting the tax legislation. He has even floated the idea that the Caucus will write its own version of tax reform. This will muddy the already turbulent waters.
It has been a little more than 8 months since Republicans gained control of the government. Fears grow as the 2018 mid-term elections approach. Meadows says: “If we get to December and we’ve not repealed and replaced Obamacare, we’ve not built the wall, we’ve not done tax reform, let me just tell you it’s not going to be pretty some 8 or 9 months after that in terms of reelection.”
What should have been an easy road to Republican control of government has become a delicate balancing act. Moderate Republicans are forced to appease the far right. Freedom Caucus members will not compromise. Republicans appear adrift as looming mid-term elections threaten their seats. It will take strong leadership and negotiating skills to corral the opposing factions within the Republican Party and uphold their agenda. If the past 8 months are any indication, this remains in doubt.