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Words You'll Hear: Freedom Caucus' Role In Health Care Bill Withdrawal


Now for the regular segment we call Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories we'll be hearing more about in the coming days by parsing some of the words associated with them. Today our word or phrase is Freedom Caucus, also known as the House Freedom Caucus. You probably heard about it during the failed - during the health care debate. The Republican-backed bill failed in the House of Representatives, largely because members of the Freedom Caucus refused to support it.

Just this morning, President Trump tweeted that Democrats are smiling because the Republican Freedom Caucus helped save Obamacare. So if you're wondering what exactly it is and what the members want, Domenico Montanaro is here to explain. He's NPR's lead editor for Politics. Welcome back. Thanks so much for coming.


MARTIN: So what exactly is the House Freedom Caucus? Who's in it?

MONTANARO: So this is a group of almost 40 members. It's not exactly clear who they are exactly because they're invitation only. They're a little bit private about that. So they're almost 40 House members who are the most conservative members - hardline, ideological. And when you look at their vote ratings, for example, if you want to actually quantify this, they are almost a third more conservative in their voting than regular Republicans.

MARTIN: Why does it exist? I mean, how did this all start? Because presumably, I would imagine that everybody in the House of Representatives and the Senate for that matter would say that they believe in freedom.

MONTANARO: Sure. So on their Twitter handle, they say (reading) we support open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and rule of law and policies that promote liberty, safety and prosperity of all Americans.

So those are some grandiose kinds of terms, but you can read between the lines there and see what they stand for. They're kind of an outcrop of the Tea Party from 2010. They've started to kind of become more - a little bit more powerful. And in 2015, they formally formed themselves and were frankly responsible for the ousting of House Speaker John Boehner.

MARTIN: Is that where they first asserted themselves or came to public attention because of the...


MARTIN: ...John Boehner - well, he would say he stepped down.

MONTANARO: He would say he stepped down, but he was facing pressure from this right-wing, hardline faction. You might remember the thing called the grand bargain that John Boehner was trying to strike with President Obama when it came to tax reform and other measures. They weren't able to get it done largely because of this same faction of folks. They stuck together, and then they became more formal.

Mark Meadows, who is a congressman from North Carolina, is their chairman. And he's the one who took out what's known as a motion to vacate - first time it was used since 1910 - to be able to say that they wanted to have an open vote to get John Boehner out as speaker of the House. And to give you a sense of the kind of nostalgia, the kind of Tea-Party-foundational-founding-fathers kinds of thinking that they have, Mark Meadows talks about this moment that he decided that he was going to go for it with this motion to vacate.

His son Blake had sent him a text and with part of a speech from Teddy Roosevelt that said, it's not the critic who counts. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. Meadows - that brought tears to his eyes and says he still keeps it on his phone and was the reason why he was able to go forward.

MARTIN: Does it seem as if this group has the ability to guide legislation or policy beyond stopping things they don't like? Is there any record of advancing things that they do like?

MONTANARO: Well, inherent in that is a fundamental question that has divided Americans generally, and that's the role and scope of government. And for these folks, they don't want to have the government involved and do a lot of things. It's to the point of frustration for someone like Boehner and Paul Ryan and allies of theirs, someone like Devin Nunes, who is the House intelligence chairman, who had said, when they were first coming to prominence, described them as lemmings with suicide vests.

So if they're lemmings with suicide vests, in leadership's view, do you think they really care whether or not they're able to govern?

MARTIN: We'll leave that there. That's NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thank you so much.

MONTANARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered,where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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