Pity Paul Ryan: Moderates adopt Freedom Caucus tactics

Moderate Republicans have watched for years as conservative hard-liners tanked legislation in the House — all while dutifully falling in line with leadership and being knocked as "squishes" by some of their colleagues.

But lately, some in the centrist Tuesday Group have started to adopt the power-in-numbers strategy of the Freedom Caucus. And the get-tough approach is yielding results.

Resistance from moderates almost torpedoed the House Obamacare replacement this spring, and resulted in billions in additional funding to help people with pre-existing conditions — a requirement for some centrists’ support. Earlier this month, they banded with Democrats to sink two controversial amendments overwhelmingly supported by their GOP colleagues, including one barring the Pentagon from spending money on gender reassignment changes for troops.

Centrist Republicans have also told Speaker Paul Ryan they will not back a budget without a broader spending deal with Democrats. And this week, they helped crush a rank-and-file effort to pass a massive GOP appropriations package full of goodies for the base but that has no chance of passing the Senate. The spending bill was extremely popular with most of their Republican colleagues, infuriating those who supported the plan.

Tougher tactics from centrists will exacerbate Ryan’s already-difficult job of wrangling his fractious conference. The Wisconsin Republican and his leadership team find themselves twisted in knots trying to find 218 votes to pass almost anything of consequence. Now they’ll need to take more seriously the demands of vulnerable swing-district members as well as rabble-rousers on the right.

“I think there’s a lot of us who are like, ‘Don’t put us in a position of having to vote for something that has tremendous political risk to us and, substantively, is just done for negotiation purposes,’” said Rep. Thomas Reed, one of several centrists who told leadership he would not back the 12-bill spending package.

Lacking the votes, leadership is set to pass a slimmed-down, less controversial measure that funds the Pentagon and a few other agencies.

It’s quite a change for the House GOP. Tuesday Group members are typically leadership’s greatest sympathizers, always more eager than their ideologically driven colleagues to show that Republicans can govern.

Take Reed for example. By all accounts, the New York Republican has always been considered a leadership ally. He helps muscle votes as a deputy whip, and he boasts a prized panel post on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

But when Ryan and his team came up short on votes for their GOP spending package, Reed told them to look elsewhere for help. The fourth-term centrist said he’s sick of taking tough votes for the team, then reeling from the political fallout back home — only to see the conservative plan die in the Senate.

“I think there is some frustration in a sense that we came here to govern," he said. "And to go through these exercises? … I don’t see a path to the finish line, and I don’t see the strategy."

The Tuesday Group hasn’t gone as far as the Freedom Caucus, of course. It’s not churning out official positions against legislation and certainly isn’t as vocal as the conservatives, who have nearly perfected their no-holds-barred tactics.

But GOP insiders said the change is notable, albeit subtler. For instance, most Republicans were shocked and furious when moderates sank the amendment on transgender troops during the defense authorization bill in early July. Moderates knew what was coming, whispering among themselves on the floor in a loosely laid plan to bring it down.

Before President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military, some Republicans had been trying to persuade GOP leaders to do an end run around the moderates and tuck the amendment into the bill using a procedural loophole.

Sources say Tuesday Group leaders Elise Stefanik of New York and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania were adamant that leaders better not go there. And centrists made it clear that if a ban on gender reassignment surgery was included, moderates wouldn’t hesitate to take down the entire “minibus” measure of spending increases for the Pentagon.

Moderates also recently sunk a controversial amendment on Islam from Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona. It would have instructed the Pentagon to, essentially, make a list of good and potentially bad Muslim thought leaders. Moderates, who worried about religious profiling, put their foot down, rejecting the proposal with Democrats in a defeat that stunned opponents of the text.

“I think a lot of members have learned from observing others,” said centrist Republican Carlos Curbelo of Florida, referring to the Freedom Caucus.

On the GOP spending package, Curbelo continued: “Everyone knows that at the end of the day we’re going to need a bipartisan deal and a bipartisan spending package, so let’s get it done and focus less on messaging.”

Rep. Dave Reichert, a centrist Republican from Washington, argued that moderates like him are the so-called Majority Makers. And since Republicans’ hold on the House hinges entirely on them keeping their seats, they shouldn’t be subject to controversial votes that could haunt them on the ballot.

That, Reichert said, is already happening too often: “I think that there are some members who feel like a certain group of people within the conference are taking some votes that they don’t necessarily need to take… certain votes that might be bills that divide our constituency that we represent in our districts.”

At some level, moderates have a certain amount of leverage conservatives don’t — even if they’ve rarely used it. Leadership relies on them to support must-pass, often-controversial legislation that the far right refuses to back, including votes to avert government shutdowns.

This fall, House Republican leaders will look to these very members to help raise the debt ceiling since a majority of the GOP Conference likely won’t be on board.

“They rely on us to achieve outcomes that they can’t always advocate themselves, OK? And please, use that on the record,” said Dent, who’s often referred to as the ringleader of the GOP’s centrist flank.

Moderates say they’ll be ready to support GOP leaders when they take steps toward bipartisan solutions. But until then, they can expect more resistance from the center.

“I know how to push the red button,” Dent warned.

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