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  1. Florida Politics

Meet the Freedom Caucus, the group that dared to say no to President Donald Trump

Freedom Caucus member Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville., smiles after a TV interview on Capitol Hill in Washington last Thursday before the Republican health care bill was pulled. [J. Scott Applewhite | Associated Press]
Freedom Caucus member Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville., smiles after a TV interview on Capitol Hill in Washington last Thursday before the Republican health care bill was pulled. [J. Scott Applewhite | Associated Press]

WASHINGTON — Still livid over the collapse of the Obamacare replacement, President Donald Trump jumped on Twitter and shook Washington out of bed Tuesday.

"The Republican House Freedom Caucus was able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory," Trump wrote in one of his signature late-night attacks. "After so many bad years they were ready for a win!"

Before Friday, when the bill was pulled from a vote, the Freedom Caucus was little known outside Washington — a small, raucous coalition of far-right conservatives who, unhappy that parts of the Affordable Care Act were maintained, insisted on more changes until Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan quit negotiating.

In a tweet Sunday, Trump said "Democrats are smiling" because the Freedom Caucus and conservative interest groups had "saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!" But among the 30-plus Freedom Caucus members, his fury landed with a whimper.

"I don't work for Donald Trump. I work with him. I work for the people who sent me up here," said Rep. Ted Yoho of Gainesville, one of three members from Florida. "He ran on repealing and replacing Obamacare. Those people that put him and me in office expect us to repeal and replace Obamacare."

Instead of facing blowback at home over the weekend, Yoho said, constituents were "ecstatic. Of course, every Democrat was happy about it." The president, he added, "had some bad counseling, what this bill did or didn't do."

Welcome to Washington, Mr. Trump. The same GOP divisions that stymied former House Speaker John Boehner's attempt to work with Barack Obama, and ultimately forced Boehner to retire, dealt a significant blow to the man who bragged to voters about his deal making prowess.

The bill failed for various reasons. No Democrats supported it and moderate Republicans were repelled by provisions that would have hurt poor and older Americans.

Yet the hard-line Freedom Caucus was the focus of the struggle, and the White House spent considerable energy to win over its members, who also include Florida Reps. Bill Posey of Rockledge and Ron DeSantis of Palm Coast.

The group is powerful because only about two dozen defections are needed to block legislation.

Formed in January 2015, the Freedom Caucus members tend to be newer to Congress and many are aligned with the tea party. It's mission is to "support open, accountable & limited government, the Constitution & the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety & prosperity of all Americans."

Posey, a former state legislator, puts it more casually: "It's just an opportunity for like-minded guys to get together." He said he opposed the health care plan because "it didn't repeal Obamacare and it didn't lower rates."

The Freedom Caucus does not disclose its membership, though it is generally known around the Capitol. The rebellious group has never been particularly well liked (a distinction some members proudly wear) and drew condemnation for forcing Boehner to resign in October 2015. It then rejected Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and endorsed Florida Rep. Daniel Webster as a replacement.

The job eventually went to Ryan, who now faces Boehner-like headaches with a freshly emboldened Freedom Caucus. So far, members are holding their fire.

"Paul's a great guy and he's got a tough job," Yoho said. "But my job is also to hold him accountable — leadership, not just Paul — question and challenge and let him know we're just not going to go for a vote."

One caucus member, however, had enough. "Saying no is easy, leading is hard, but that is what we were elected to do," Houston-area Rep. Ted Poe said Sunday. "Leaving this caucus will allow me to be a more effective member of Congress and advocate for the people of Texas. It is time to lead."

The group had gotten concessions from Ryan and Trump, including eliminating standard benefits for insurance plans, but kept pushing for more, including stripping away popular Obamacare provisions such as a mandate that people with pre-existing conditions cannot be banned from coverage. That only made it harder for moderates to support the bill.

"The Freedom Caucus wants the freedom to vote no on everything, which makes governing complicated for the Republican majority," said John Feehery, a veteran GOP strategist in Washington.

"By and large they're genuinely good people who care deeply about the country," said former Republican Rep. David Jolly of Pinellas County. "It's probably the most successful ideological bloc in the House but their successes are only measured by legislation they have defeated, not by provisions they have passed. … Having spoken with former members, this one has definitely left some wounds in the (overall GOP) caucus. Pretty raw feelings right now internally."

Leading the Freedom Caucus is Rep. Mark Meadows, an affable real estate developer from western North Carolina. "The strength of any group is in their ability to stick together," he told reporters Monday evening, politely sticking around for questions as he made his way to a caucus meeting. "I wouldn't classify that as a mob as much as I would classify it as an organized effort."

He expressed some disappointment. "I'm a deal maker and I didn't produce a deal. With that, I've got to figure out what I've got to do differently to produce a deal."

Reversing course, Republican leaders and White House officials on Tuesday signaled they will try again despite days ago suggesting the Affordable Care Act was the law of the land for now. "We're not going to retrench into our corners or put up dividing lines," Ryan said. "There's too much at stake to get bogged down in all of that."

But the same dynamic that killed the American Health Care Act remains — and Trump appears determined to move on to other major issues, including tax reform and infrastructure.

"I don't think Donald Trump or Paul Ryan should look at it as a failure," Yoho said. "It would be like the Apollo getting ready for blastoff and they are in the 10-second countdown and the computer says there is something wrong and they go back and figure out what's wrong, fix it, so they can have a successful liftoff. There's been a lot of time put into this. People are close. It would be a mistake to put this off."

Yoho campaigned with Trump, who has stirred such passion in his district that some people have created hand-painted signs. During a meeting last week with Vice President Mike Pence, Yoho got up to leave and flashed a thumbs down, a move that irritated the White House, anonymous insiders told the Washington Post. Yoho said he was leaving for a meeting with Trump and that he was gesturing to another caucus member.

"I was a no on this when it first came out," Yoho said. "It wasn't because I'm angry, not at all."

Trump threaten to go after dissenters, but Yoho has little reason for concern. His office sent out a survey on the health care bill and of 3,480 responses, only 215 people were for it.

Yoho said he decided to give up his large animal veterinary practice in 2012 to run on repealing and replacing Obamacare. Once associated with the tea party, he now waves the Freedom Caucus flag — though Yoho said he was reluctant to join at first. "I said, 'I'll come to a meeting and speak my mind and you may not want me to join.' "

Now, he said, "I see the value of being a force. I don't want to say a force, but numbers. If you're all spread out, you can't change policy for the better and I feel we've done that."

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.

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