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How a secret Freedom Caucus pact brought down Obamacare repeal

Speaker Paul Ryan and House leaders had been toiling behind closed doors for weeks assembling their Obamacare repeal bill as suspicion on the far-right simmered.

So on March 6, just hours after Ryan unveiled a plan that confirmed its worst fears, the House Freedom Caucus rushed to devise a counter-strategy. The few dozen true believers knew that pressure from House leaders and President Donald Trump to fall in line would be immense, and they were intent on not getting boxed in.

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In a conference room in the Rayburn House Office Building, the group met that evening and made a secret pact. No member would commit his vote before consulting with the entire group — not even if Trump himself called to ask for an on-the-spot commitment. The idea, hatched by Freedom Caucus vice chairman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), was to bind them together in negotiations and ensure the White House or House leaders could not peel them off one by one.

Twenty-eight of the group's roughly three dozen members took the plunge.

Three weeks later, Republican leaders, as many as 25 votes short of passage, were forced to pull their bill from the House floor.

“This is a defining moment for our nation, but it's also a defining moment for the Freedom Caucus,” said group leader Mark Meadows about a week before the doomed vote was scheduled. “I don't think there's a more critical vote for the Freedom Caucus than this."

The unpublicized pledge sowed the seeds of Friday’s collapse of the Republican Party’s seven-year campaign to replace Obamacare with its own vision of health care reform. While Trump and leadership were able to win over some Freedom Caucus members, the parties to the pact refused to budge without a green light from their peers, despite receiving one concession after another.

Their resistance — along with the objections of a handful of moderates — stymied Trump and Ryan in the first major legislative gambit between the policy expert and political novice. The Freedom Caucus stared down its own commander-in-chief and won — delivering a black eye to his early presidency and potentially damaging the rest of his agenda.

“They [were] basically saying, ‘We’re going to find all the guys who support it, and we’re all going to hold hands and be a ‘no' on something,’” said a senior Republican source. “It’s ironic because these are the guys who say, ‘I don’t turn my voting card over to leadership. I am the only guy who controls my voting card.' But then they do this stuff, where they say, ‘I can’t because my group is a no.’"

This account of the Freedom Caucus’ central role in the health care showdown is based on interviews with more than two dozen Republican legislators, White House officials and congressional aides. Time and again, they described the tortured, toxic political dynamic within the House Republican Conference — old news to those who’ve followed years of internecine battles between the far-right and leadership, but

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Freedom Caucus thwarts Boehner, Ryan — and now Trump

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Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows at times attempted to broker a health care deal with the White House and even extracted a few concessions. | Getty

President Donald Trump’s election was supposed to neuter the House Freedom Caucus, the band of three-dozen rabble-rousing conservatives who made their name vexing House GOP leadership and driving John Boehner into early retirement.

So much for that idea.

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On Friday, the Freedom Caucus delivered enough votes to sink Trump’s push to replace Obamacare, proving it can stymie not only another Republican speaker, but a new Republican president.

It was not supposed to be this way. Trump’s election, along with the return of Republican majorities to the House and Senate, appeared to marginalize the party’s purist wing. Republicans elected their own bomb-thrower to the presidency; the bomb-throwers in Congress were expected to have his back.

But the failed health care drive made clear that if Trump wants to deal with Congress, he has to reckon with the Freedom Caucus. As does Speaker Paul Ryan and every other member of House, many of whom were left seething by their colleagues’ inability to get to “yes” on the Obamacare replacement.

The group launched just over two years ago and has repeatedly bucked Republican leaders, forcing Boehner and then Ryan to cut deals with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

“There were people were not interested in solving the problem,” Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), one of the architects of the GOP health care plan, said Friday. “They win today."

Amazingly, Ryan’s old reality — a right-wing flank that tortures leadership on seemingly every big initiative — remains his new reality despite the GOP’s dominance. Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) at times attempted to broker a health care deal with the White House and even extracted a few concessions. But eventually, he and his allies withheld their support, effectively killing the measure.

In a way, Meadows seemed to recognize that the group's resistance to the health care legislation represented a broader quest for meaning in the Trump era.

"Speaking candidly, this is a defining moment for our nation but it's also a defining moment for the Freedom Caucus," he told reporters Monday, four days before Ryan pulled the health care bill. "And so when we look at that, I don't think there's a more critical vote for the Freedom Caucus than this."

Ryan pointed out at a press conference Friday afternoon that the caucus had enough votes to single-handedly kill the health care legislation, though slipping support from moderates also played a hand in its demise.

For now, Freedom Caucus members don’t seem interested in sending Ryan to the same fate as Boehner.

“Paul Ryan, he’s a very good man,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) “He’s an eloquent speaker. He is an excellent representative of the GOP conference as a whole, and I like the job he’s doing and I want him to stay as speaker of the House. And I’ve heard nothing to the contrary.”

But

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Trump delivers surprise to California

SACRAMENTO — California appeared destined for near-Dickensian times after Donald Trump’s election. The state had just delivered a landslide winning margin for his opponent and rapidly evolved into the beachhead of the Trump resistance. The irritable president threatened to withhold federal funding from the nation’s most populous state.

Yet in an early turn from that discord, the Trump administration has delivered on three big asks in its short time in office, approving much-needed presidential disaster declarations related to the Oroville Dam crisis and winter storms. The declarations free up what's likely to be millions of dollars in federal aid in more than a dozen California counties.

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The approvals don’t necessarily represent a thawing between the president and the state that loves to hate to him. Reconciliation on the most partisan — and consequential — issues remains out of reach. But while the federal government has historically approved a large majority of disaster and emergency declaration requests, the process is not immune from political considerations, and previous presidents have made headlines with their denials. The administration’s responsiveness to California suggests an opening in Trump’s Washington for even the most critical, heavily Democratic states.

“Nothing is all that predictable under the current administration,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said when he touched down in the nation’s capital this week for his first visit since the inauguration. “So that could be a cause for alarm, but also a cause for some optimism.”

Despite his coolness toward California, which delivered a popular vote margin of over 4 million votes for Hillary Clinton, Trump has largely sidestepped opportunities for open conflict with the state. While moving this month to roll back national vehicle emission standards, the Trump administration elected not to immediately seek revocation of a federal waiver allowing California to impose its own, stricter rules — though the administration could still do so following a move by California regulators Friday to impose even stricter state emissions standards.

In talks with Trump officials about the disaster declarations at least, the Brown administration was struck by a lack of politics in the administration's decision making, finding conversations professional and not dissimilar from other administrations.

With a fourth request pending, Brown said after meeting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Bob Fenton, “We feel we’re in synch with the federal emergency management team here … and I’m optimistic. I think President Trump cares about helping people in disasters.”

Like other presidents, Trump has also appeared to recognize the political opportunity in assisting states. Hours before issuing his first disaster declaration for California, in February, the president used the Oroville Dam emergency to advance his infrastructure agenda.

“The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that month. “Dams, bridges, roads and all ports around the country have fallen into disrepair. In order to prevent the next disaster, we will pursue the president’s vision for an overhaul of our

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Top Trump TV surrogate to leave high-profile post

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Boris Epshteyn is expected to remain in the administration, but possibly in a less visible role. | AP Photo

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Republicans wonder whether Trump's heart was in healthcare fight

While President Donald Trump’s first major legislative push hurtled toward a major defeat, one of his top advisers, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, was photographed with his wife, Ivanka Trump, on a ski gondola in Aspen.

Kushner may not have been the lead White House negotiator on the doomed healthcare bill. But the image of Trump’s top consigliere hitting the slopes at perhaps the most critical moment of his young presidency sent a message loud and clear: The White House wanted a win, but health care was not the dominant priority for Trump that it was for the Republican members of Congress who actually had to take a vote.

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"Their heart was not in the healthcare battle,” said a top Republican who was in meetings with the president and his team but declined to be identified because those conversations were supposed to be private. “Think about the level of intensity on the executive orders for the travel ban, or on the wiretapping claims. He certainly checked the boxes on healthcare, to his credit. But it's self-evident there was not a certain level of intensity devoted to this."

White House officials have insisted that Trump understood that a legislative victory was crucial at this stage of his administration -- he is struggling to boost a 42.2 percent approval rating according to FiveThirtyEight.com , the lowest of his presidency so far -- and that he was lending the full force of his office to the cause.

"The president and vice president left everything on the field," press secretary Sean Spicer wrote in an email on Saturday. "They were making calls and having members to the White House all week. In total, we spoke or met with over 120 members of Congress." And Kushner, other White House officials insisted, was never deeply involved in health care to begin with.

But according to Republican Hill staffers, in the weeks leading up to the doomed vote, Trump’s mind seemed to be elsewhere.

The president made it clear at rallies over the past few weeks that healthcare was just something he needed to get through, in order to move on to the next thing. "We want a very big tax cut, but cannot do that until we keep our promise to repeal and replace the disaster known as 'Obamacare,'" he told an adoring crowd at a rally in Louisville last week.

The president also has been distracted in recent weeks by other issues, like questions about possible collusion between Russia and his campaign, and the evidence-free accusation that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 election.

The top Republican said that in one healthcare meeting with the president and his top aides in the Oval Office, it was a challenge to keep Trump focused on the health care vote. "Halfway through that meeting, he stopped to talk about Gorsuch,” the source said. “His mind was bouncing around. I never felt they were dialed into this."

Trump gamely climbed to the Hill

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