Freedom Caucus split on shutdown clash


Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows on Capitol Hill

Chairman Mark Meadows has argued that entering into a spending battle that could shutter the government in October would be unwise without a cohesive plan. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It’s been a recurring scene in Congress for years: House Freedom Caucus members pushing the government to the brink of a shutdown until their policy demand of the moment is met.

This time, though, some caucus members are actually pleading for cooler heads.

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The rare division among the conservative hardliners — coming, ironically, with fellow rebel Donald Trump in the White House — could help prevent what most of the Republican Party views as a true nightmare scenario weeks before the November election.

Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina has argued that entering into a spending battle that could shutter the government in October would be unwise without a cohesive plan, appearing to side with GOP leaders who fear a shutdown before midterms would upend their House majority.

But Freedom Caucus founder and ex-leader Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the more confrontational of the pair, is itching for the battle now before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, eager to force Democrats to vote on Trump’s border wall with Mexico.

“You really think we’re going to get it done after the election? When has that ever happened?” Jordan said off the House floor Wednesday evening. Immigration “was one of the central issues in the campaign and I think it helps our voters understand that we’re fighting for what we said we would do.”

Contrast that with Meadows, who just hours earlier told reporters that “at this point we need to fund the government.”

“I don’t see a deliberate plan on how we secure our border happening by the end of September, and so having that debate over the next three months is probably more prudent than trying to have it in the next week and a half,” Meadows said.

Adding to the confusion is Trump, who on Wednesday afternoon signaled that he’d be willing shut down the government to get funding for the border wall with Mexico — though he also told the Daily Caller Tuesday that he’d wait until after the election to do it.

“If it happens, it happens,” Trump said. “If it’s about border security, I’m willing to do anything.”

It’s a rare break in the group that frequently bands together to maximize their influence. Interviews with more than half-dozen group members showed that some side with Meadows while others think Jordan is right. These sources say the group debated the issue Tuesday night. And since they couldn’t come to an agreement, they took no position on the matter.

Freedom Caucus sources cautioned, however, that the disagreement is tactical, not substantial. Those in the group who want to postpone the fight are just as eager to play chicken with Democrats over Trump’s border wall. The question is one of timing, with these people believing that the fight, which could be bloody and will likely lead to agencies shuttering, would be better off hashed out later.

“The polls showing Republicans maintaining control of the House are not optimistic, and I don’t believe a shutdown helps,” said group member Joe Barton of Texas, who is retiring this year. “So I would not be supportive of anything that results in a shutdown or anything of that nature — and I’m usually one of the more aggressive individuals willing to confront excessive spending and the Senate.”

“I have voted for wall funding, I think it’s necessary and in the end, after the election, I’m fine with forcing the issue,” echoed group member Andy Harris of Maryland, who’s advocated for a delayed fight as well.

Even if the Freedom Caucus wanted the fight now, the group couldn’t do much about it on Capitol Hill. GOP leaders will turn to Democrats to help them pass spending bills, and they won’t need Freedom Caucus votes.

But the group’s leverage on the matter comes from their two leaders, Meadows and Jordan. Both men are close with Trump, who views them as the heart and soul of his base. And the duo has circumvented GOP leaders to lobby Trump on their own positions in the past and won.

Now, without the two men pushing in unison for a showdown now, GOP leaders have a better shot at keeping Trump on message. Republican leaders have been lobbying him to postpones his much-desired shutdown fight over the border wall until the lame-duck session, and without Meadows and Jordan whispering in his ear to do it now, they could avoid a shutdown situation.

Any decision to wait on a shutdown battle, however, doesn’t mean HFC will give leaders a greenlight either. Group members are not expected to support many of the appropriations bills and are already complaining about a leadership decision to combine defense funding they back with Labor and Health and Human Services departments funding bills they despise.

The group’s willingness to delay the fight might have something to do with Trump himself. Freedom Caucus members seemed certain this week that the president would sign a short-term “continuing resolution” for the Homeland Security Department, which effectively delays the wall showdown until after the election. If Trump called them to arms now, they would go with him, some have suggested.

Still, many in the group are upset about the CR strategy and feel they should fight now. Freedom Caucus member Warren Davidson said the House should just pass the president’s priorities and make Senate Democrats vote it down. Trump has asked for $5 billion for his wall. But while the House’s Department of Homelands Security funding bill incudes that amount, the Senate’s, which requires bipartisanship for passage, could only get Democrats to agree to $1.6 billion.

“I think our obligation is [to] put the bills to the Senate that fund our government ahead of October 1 with full year funding, and frankly we should do what we said we would do,” Davidson said. “If the Senate votes and fails, then we can talk about covering for the Senate yet again. But they owe us a vote.”

The group seems to be undecided about how long a CR for the Homeland Security Department should last. Harris said “a CR into December has never resulted in a victory because people want to go home for the holidays” but added that “I still haven’t figured out where I prefer the CR.”

The group also seems to be considering a suggestion to push DHS funding into January, an idea that came up at the HFC meeting Tuesday night. But that comes with certain risk if the Republicans lose the majority Nov. 6.

The postponement might be a sacrifice to get other appropriations bills passed. Meadows noted Wednesday that Democrats wouldn’t vote for any appropriations bills if they thought Republicans would shutdown DHS right before the election. He’s likely right.

“How do you continue to keep a bipartisan appropriations bill in play without alienating some of the Democrats, and so I really believe that the majority of our effort will be spent on border security after November versus in October,” he said.

Still, hearing Meadows and others from the group of rabble-rousers make such arguments is a real change.

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