In Twist, Trump Victory Could Defang Anti-Establishment G.O.P. Caucus
WASHINGTON — They have spent almost two years battling the establishment wing of their own party, emerging from the Republican fringes to stymie routine legislation and ignite the spark that immolated their party’s most powerful elected leader, Speaker John A. Boehner.
But in a twist that could alter the dynamics of the next Congress, these anti-establishment Republicans, known as the House Freedom Caucus, could find their influence crippled by the ascension of an anti-establishment figure to the White House.
The delirious aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s surprise election victory has, at least for now, erased the party divisions that the Freedom Caucus has leveraged within a historically unpopular Congress. After having braced themselves for a Democratic-controlled White House and Senate, Republicans are now rushing to dust off their wish lists.
“It has been roses and sunshine. It’s unbelievable,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma. “It is just amazing what a difference the Trump victory has made.”
And, while Mr. Trump and the few dozen members of the Freedom Caucus may share the anti-establishment mantle, the caucus has yet to forge a relationship with the president-elect, potentially squandering an opportunity to help shape the party’s agenda. In assembling his presidential transition team, Mr. Trump has, so far, turned instead to less hard-line members of Congress.
The earliest and most ardent backers of Mr. Trump, like Representatives Chris Collins and Lee Zeldin of New York, and Tom Marino and Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania, are not Freedom Caucus members. They come from the kind of Rust Belt districts that buoyed Mr. Trump to victory last week.
Underscoring the effect of early loyalty to Mr. Trump, the president-elect announced on Friday that Mr. Collins, Mr. Marino and Mr. Barletta would all be on the executive committee of his presidential transition team. Representatives Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Devin Nunes of California, who once called the members of the Freedom Caucus “lemmings with suicide vests,” are also on the committee.
Ideologically, Mr. Trump’s most fervent supporters in Congress break with the Freedom Caucus in important policy areas. They are expected to rally to the president-elect’s call for increased spending on infrastructure, even if it is not paid for with equal cuts elsewhere in the budget. Above all, they vehemently oppose free trade, an issue that divides the Freedom Caucus.
Representative Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican who is the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, dismissed the notion that the election may have rendered his group obsolete.
“That group who’s been pushing against the establishment now had an individual who came and ran on that message — and now we’re less relevant?” Mr. Jordan said. “I actually think our influence is as strong as ever.”
Mr. Jordan said he had spoken with a couple of people involved in Mr. Trump’s campaign since the election, but not with Mr. Trump.
In many ways, Mr. Trump’s victory feels like the Freedom Caucus’s own. After meeting with Republican congressional leaders on Thursday, the president-elect said that strengthening the nation’s borders and fixing the health care system after repealing the Affordable Care Act were two of his top priorities, policy goals that the Freedom Caucus shares.
“Both of us are heading in the exact same direction,” said Representative Andy Harris, Republican of Maryland and a member of the Freedom Caucus.
But legislation has never been the group’s primary focus. It has instead been united in what it sees as a Robin Hood-like mission to seize power from their party’s leaders on behalf of House members. Less than a week before the election, a handful of the group’s members quietly met in Washington to strategize, and discussed whether to press for rules changes that would allow committee members to choose their own chairmen, an idea that the leadership would be certain to reject.
Mr. Trump’s victory defanged the Freedom Caucus’s most serious threat: a challenge to the speakership of Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, which could have been used as leverage toward other goals. After Mr. Ryan told Republicans last month that he would no longer defend Mr. Trump, some members of the Freedom Caucus floated the prospect of voting against the speaker during the party’s internal leadership elections on Tuesday.
A sharply diminished House Republican majority would have empowered the Freedom Caucus, whose members largely survived the election. But, despite the expectations of many, it did not materialize on Election Day. And Mr. Trump, who once called Mr. Ryan “a very weak and ineffective leader,” has signaled that he will put his animosity toward the speaker behind him — at least for now.
“It appears that the president-elect and the speaker are eager and committed to hit the ground running in a very positive way, which sends strong signals that unity is the most likely and best path forward,” Mr. Zeldin said.
Mr. Collins, who was the first member of Congress to endorse Mr. Trump, said he had spoken with Mr. Trump on Wednesday, and believed that Mr. Ryan’s re-election as speaker was “a slam dunk.”
“Paul Ryan raised incredible sums of money to help our folks withstand a barrage coming from the other side,” Mr. Collins said in an interview with CNN. “He’s well respected. I don’t even see a challenge to his leadership, and I think we will select him next Tuesday.”
Like their Republican colleagues, the Freedom Caucus is still sorting out what the election will mean for the group in the next Congress. Mr. Jordan, the caucus chairman, has alluded to potential battles with Republican leaders if they compromise with Democrats.
“We got 218 Republicans, we got a majority in the Senate and we have a Republican in the White House,” Mr. Jordan said, referring to 218 seats, the minimum number required to hold the House majority. “There is no reason to do what’s been done in the past, which is not to stand firm on the conservative position that we told the voters we were going to do when they elected us to serve.”
But there is one force Republicans do not want to cross, Mr. Cole, who is not a member of the Freedom Caucus, said: their constituents, who supported Mr. Trump in large numbers.
“Certainly you want to think twice about being on the wrong side of your own president,” he said.
Continue reading the main story