WASHINGTON ― The House Freedom Caucus proved Friday that they cannot be run over by Donald Trump. Once Trump has finished sifting through the wreckage of his presidency, he may come to realize that he has two options left to rebuild it: Either run through the Freedom Caucus or run around it.
Because, so long as Trump decides he wants to work squarely within a Republican framework, the Freedom Caucus, a bloc of 37 House conservatives who band together on major votes, has the power to stop legislation. And this week it showed that gumming up the works remains its objective, even with a Republican in the White House. Each concession Trump made to the recalcitrant caucus brought him no new support but further alienated the moderate Republicans he needs for a majority.
Trump believes he will be able to brush off the loss on health care and move toward issues he cares more about: tax reform and infrastructure. But the political dynamic that took down his health care repeal will be at play to one degree or another when it comes to both of those interrelated issues.
“This will hopefully be a learning moment for President Trump, especially when you look ahead at other big issues like tax reform, the debt ceiling and infrastructure,” said Brian Walsh, a longtime Republican operative. “There’s a small group of Republicans who really have no concept of what it means to govern, and so, instead of trying to reason, cajole or capitulate with them, which was done to varying degrees over health care, the president needs to confront them head on. He needs to use the power of his platform to publicly call them out and put pressure on them at home because the only way to beat a bully is to punch them in the mouth.”
In his remarks after health care reform fell apart, Trump didn’t seem quite ready to point the finger at his own ranks, let alone punch them in the proverbial mouth. His ire was saved for Democrats, whom he said he expected to be there on the bill even though he did nothing to win their votes.
Going forward, however, the president’s legislative priorities find far more overlap with the opposition party than they do his conservative base. Freedom Caucus members tend to represent rural districts, while infrastructure spending tends to boost regions that have significant infrastructure needs, otherwise known as cities. And for an infrastructure bill to matter, it will have to include direct federal spending, something the deficit hawks in the Freedom Caucus are loath to sign off on. Never mind that much of the work will be done by union crews or those benefiting from the prevailing wages unions have commanded.
If Trump can’t marshal the support of the Freedom Caucus, that means he would need to go elsewhere for the rest of a majority in the House. One of the more obvious places to start would be the Congressional Black Caucus, though he appeared, several weeks after he’d become president, to be unaware that such a body existed.
But in exchange for salvaging his presidency, would Democratic demands be so great that House Republicans walk away en masse? Congressional Republicans have no interest in direct federal spending on infrastructure, and if Trump has broken with them, they may find themselves disinclined to help him.
Tax reform presents its own complications. House Speaker Paul Ryan has been pushing to do away with the corporate tax code in favor of what’s known as a “border adjustment tax.” The idea is a sound one: The current code is wildly complex and prone to being gamed by offshoring schemes and other clever tax moves. It can also encourage companies to keep profits overseas. The Ryan plan would tax goods when they are imported and sold in the United States but allow for tax-free export, with the goal of boosting manufacturing.
Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon has warmed to the idea and has struck up an alliance with Ryan to help move it through Congress. But Bannon no longer controls the far-right Breitbart News or the posture of conservative media, which could turn on the BAT simply as a way to further bruise Ryan.
Koch Industries, meanwhile, is a major importer of tar sands oil from Canada, and a BAT would take an eye-popping chunk out of the company’s profit. The Koch brothers, who are major political players, and outside conservative groups including the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, The Club for Growth and The Heritage Foundation, have been furiously opposed to the new plan, which gives Freedom Caucus members who buck Ryan and the president plenty of political cover.
Trump has to deal with all these delicate dynamics as he plots to save his presidency and legislative agenda. The question now becomes whether he decides to form unconventional coalitions or continues to allow progress to be determined by a band of 30 to 40 conservative House members.
“I think we should be able to govern,” said Doug Heye, a longtime party operative. “That we are not is obviously a big problem.”