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Trump vs. the Freedom Caucus

President Donald Trump is now calling the House Freedom Caucus’ bluff. | Getty

The group that brought down Speaker John Boehner is headed for a momentous clash with President Donald Trump on Friday.

And it’s anybody’s guess who’s going to win.

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The House Freedom Caucus has threatened to tank the House GOP Obamacare replacement bill unless they get what they want. But Trump is now calling their bluff. White House officials told members of the group on Thursday they have one shot: If they help defeat the American Health Care Act, the Trump administration is going to move on — meaning the Freedom Caucus could be pinned with actually saving Obamacare. The White House is betting that they will cave, given that saving Obamacare is something these conservative Republicans will never be able to stomach.

The faceoff with Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — their main nemesis — has brought the group of hardliners to a crossroads. They can vote for a repeal bill they once dubbed “Obamacare Lite.” Or they can stick together and block the president’s first major legislative initiative. Either outcome has huge implications for the future of the Freedom Caucus and its chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).

It’s a showdown GOP leadership has been itching to have for a long time. The Freedom Caucus has been a major thorn in the side of Republican leadership since they sent Boehner packing nearly 18 months ago. During this Obamacare repeal debate, they went around Ryan’s back to negotiate directly with the White House and kept demanding more concessions to secure their votes, angering some senior House Republicans.

Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty

The Freedom Caucus won some of the policy disputes, including an agreement from the White House to end the requirement for “essential health benefits” in insurance plans. But they wanted more, including rolling back so-called “Title 1” regulations, such as the ban on discriminating against patients with pre-existing conditions or keeping children on a health plan until age 26. That was too much for the White House and House GOP leaders. Now Trump is done negotiating, he’s calling for a vote, and he’s leaning on them hard to back the measure.

“It’s a really tough choice,” said Freedom Caucus member Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), one of the few lawmakers who embraced Trump early in the 2016 election. “There’s probably no issue so important to me. It’s why I ran six years ago and it’s really important to me that we get this right. I think we can do better… but they’re ready to move on.”

The Freedom Caucus, to be sure, may very well win this showdown. Hardline conservatives and a block of unhappy moderates — some of whom now oppose the American Health Care Act because of the same concessions given to conservatives — could bring down the bill and hand Trump and Ryan a major loss.

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Between these two factions, there are enough votes to defeat the bill. Ryan will have to deliver 215 votes to pass the bill, and it’s going to be close. There are currently 237 House Republicans, meaning Trump and Ryan can only lose 22 votes.

Yet derailing the AHCA would severely cramp Trump’s legislative agenda, decimate Ryan’s image, and give a huge boost to Democrats. Tax reform — a major priority for Trump — would be especially impacted since leaving Obamacare in place would give the White House dramatically less room to cut taxes.

The outcome of Friday’s vote also has the potential to drive a wedge between members of the caucus. Rep. Meadows, who has become the face of the GOP opposition to AHCA, has been saying he “desperately” wants to cut a deal with Trump. Numerous White House and Hill sources say they firmly believe Meadows wants to vote “Yes.”

“We’re committed to stay[ing] as long as it takes to get this done because the president has promised it to the people, we have promised, and we’re committed to stay here until we get it done,” Meadows said earlier on Thursday, before Trump’s dramatic move to demand a vote on the bill. “The president will get a victory because we all want to negotiate in good faith and deliver on promises.”

inHowever, a sizable chunk of his group’s 30-plus members have made it crystal clear that no amount of tweaking or minor changes to Ryan’s replacement bill can win them over. Insiders in the House and the White House believe about 10 to 15 of the Freedom Caucus members will vote “no” on the measure regardless of what concessions they receive or what pressure Trump and the leadership try to bring against them. Thus, if Meadows votes yes, he alienates those conservatives and the outside groups that have come against AHCA. If he votes no, he will damage his credibility with the White House and broader GOP Conference.

It’s one of the reasons why the White House decided to roll the dice and demand a floor vote. A senior administration official told POLITICO they didn’t think Meadows could change the group’s mind and get them to commit to a deal.

So now Meadows now finds himself caught in a political bind between his desire to be there for the president, with whom he shares a good rapport, and his collection of ideological purists driving a tough — if not politically unpalatable — bargain.

Josh Dawsey contributed to this story.

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