WASHINGTON — Halfway through Congress’s 2013 summer recess, a letter landed on the desks of House Republican leaders demanding a new strategy to fight “one of the largest grievances in our time.” Give Congress the option to defund the Affordable Care Act, it said, or risk shutting down the government.
Republican leaders condemned the idea, and the 80 House Republicans who signed the letter acquired a nickname, courtesy of the conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer — the “suicide caucus.” But it wasn’t long before a bitter disagreement over the health care law snarled budget negotiations and resulted in a disruptive government shutdown that lasted 16 days. Republicans took the blame.
Three and a half years later, the letter’s recipients — John A. Boehner, then the House speaker, and Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader at the time — are gone, casualties of the take-no-prisoners conservatism it espoused.
Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina — just a freshman Republican when he wrote that letter — and several of the signers are now part of the hard-line group known as the House Freedom Caucus. True to their “suicide caucus” roots, they pose what is possibly the greatest threat to Republicans’ long-awaited opportunity to scrap former President Barack Obama’s biggest domestic policy achievement.
Panning the Republican plan as “Obamacare Lite,” the Freedom Caucus is gambling that its demands will not kill the repeal effort that has been a cause célèbre for all Republicans. And with President Trump’s budget request previewing a bruising round of negotiations just weeks from now, its members appear to be on a collision course with their party’s leadership at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Facing the prospect that their brand of combative conservatism could prove less appealing to voters than Mr. Trump’s, the group has even expressed a tentative willingness to negotiate on a spending bill that may not immediately reduce the deficit, once a deal-breaking prospect during the Obama administration.
“We are willing to play ball, I think. We’re willing to be open,” said Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, a member of the caucus. “But we’ve got to know it’s a consideration for you because it’s a concern for us.”
Formed in early 2015, the Freedom Caucus threw itself into efforts that year to shut down the Department of Homeland Security over Mr. Obama’s executive orders on immigration, and then the federal government over funding for Planned Parenthood. Increasingly angry at Mr. Boehner’s efforts to quell his restive right wing, they pushed to toss him out. That October, he resigned.
So secretive that it will not disclose the names of its members, but headed by the persistently visible and often affable Mr. Meadows, the roughly three dozen members of the group have positioned themselves as the House’s guardians of conservatism.
But some of their fellow Republicans chafe at what they see as their counterproductive propensity to engage in intraparty slugfests. Representative Devin Nunes — the California Republican who in exasperation once called the instigators of the 2013 shutdown “lemmings with suicide vests” — said the refusal to unite sends Republican leaders in search of Democratic votes, “moving the agenda to the left.”
“At the end of the day, this is a team sport,” he said. “On the House side, you have to find a way to pass bills with your majority. No matter what, at all costs, you have to do that.”
House Republicans are keenly aware of the stakes for repealing the Affordable Care Act. About two-thirds of their 237 members were elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 or later. Most campaigned on getting rid of the health care law.
“This is our generation’s rendezvous with destiny,” said Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, another Freedom Caucus member.
“It’s also a heavy lift,” he added.
Though relatively few House Republicans belong to Freedom Caucus, the fact that Republican leaders have little margin for error has only emboldened the group. Bills currently need at least 216 votes to clear the House, meaning Republicans can afford to lose just 21 members without Democratic help. (There are five vacancies in the House, four left by Republicans who took cabinet positions in the Trump administration.)
Members of the Freedom Caucus have expressed an assortment of concerns with the health care bill crafted by Speaker Paul D. Ryan and the Trump administration, which they argue does not go far enough toward repealing all aspects of the Affordable Care Act. Among other issues, they have dismissed its subsidies as a new entitlement program, and have argued that the measure should eliminate all essential health benefits requirements placed on insurers to control premiums. They endorsed one member’s plan last month.
They are hardly the only Republicans with concerns about the measure. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and a few others in liberal-leaning districts are among other House Republicans who oppose it, as do key Republican governors; many outside groups, including the American Medical Association; and a handful of senators whose concerns clash with conservative opposition in the House.
But the caucus has become the stubborn obstacle to House passage, especially after top members of the Republican Study Committee — a larger conservative group to which some Freedom Caucus members also belong — emerged from a meeting with Mr. Trump Friday morning to say most of them would support the measure. Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a founding member of both groups, said he remained opposed.
A planned White House meeting for the Freedom Caucus, featuring pizza and bowling, was postponed last week because of snow.
The fact that “over the past two weeks, the health care bill has gone from take-it-or-leave-it to we’re-open-for-negotiation is proof that the Freedom Caucus is being effective,” said Representative Andy Harris of Maryland, a member of the group.
For a year and a half, Speaker Ryan has navigated the tricky reality that members of his own party present the greatest obstacle to even shared policy goals like repealing the Affordable Care Act — and an existential threat to his speakership.
In October, after Mr. Ryan distanced himself from Mr. Trump when a recording surfaced in which he was heard boasting of sexually assaulting women, members of the Freedom Caucus considered opposing his re-election as the party’s leader. He was later re-elected with almost unanimous Republican support, including from the Freedom Caucus.
Representative Morgan Griffith of Virginia, another member of the Freedom Caucus, shrugged off the idea that the bill’s failure would be an embarrassment for Mr. Ryan.
“People around here get all worked up on, oh my gosh, this is the end of the world,” he said. “Look, the speakership is defined by numerous votes over numerous years. And while you never want to lose when you’re in leadership or speaker, sometimes you’re going to lose. Welcome to legislating.”
Seeing a fellow disrupter in Mr. Trump, members of the Freedom Caucus have embraced him, but it is a risky and tenuous alliance. The group has viewed the willingness to cut entitlements as a practical test of conservatism; Mr. Trump vowed not to touch Social Security or Medicare during his campaign.
Praising Mr. Trump’s proposed increases in military spending, Mr. Harris emphasized the budget request would not add to the deficit thanks to strikingly deep cuts to social programs and other discretionary funding.
It also would not reduce the deficit. And Mr. Harris, like many Republicans, is concerned Mr. Trump might make good on his promise for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
“You’re never in total agreement,” he said.