At a turbulent town hall over the congressional recess, Republican Rep. Raúl Labrador fielded anguished questions about Russia, outrage over President Donald Trump’s tax returns and the stray query about recreational rock collecting.
But during the three-hour session at a middle school here in the Boise suburb of Meridian, not a single questioner from the 800-person audience criticized Labrador for his role in scuttling Trump’s health care bill last month, even though the president publicly blamed Labrador and his conservative House Freedom Caucus allies as it collapsed.
It’s the latest sign that the threats the White House issued to members of the House Freedom Caucus for opposing that bill, which would have repealed much of the Affordable Care Act, aren’t resonating. And it’s evidence that, even in the Trump era, many of these hardline conservative members face little pressure from constituents to toe the party leadership line as more legislative fights loom.
“The idea that anyone, let alone the current president, could come in and convince people to not vote for (Labrador) in a primary is beyond laughable,” said John Foster, a Boise-based operative who was the campaign manager for Labrador’s 2010 Democratic opponent, Walt Minnick, but has come to consider Labrador a friend. “He knows his district. Trump doesn’t know this district.”
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During a two-day swing with Labrador through an urban slice of the vast, verdant First Congressional District of Idaho, the congressman signaled that he is unmoved by the White House’s past threats of primary challenges as retribution for helping derail the last health care bill, as Congress and the administration again scramble to find a new Obamacare repeal plan. At times, he acknowledged areas of disagreement with Trump and House leadership unprompted — hardly the sign of a lawmaker who’s feeling pressured.
The visit to the district came several weeks after Trump called out Labrador and other members of the Freedom Caucus for their opposition to his health care bill, which those conservatives said didn’t go far enough in repealing Obamacare. Trump called for a “fight” against them. Labrador shot back on Twitter, “Freedom Caucus stood with u when others ran. Remember who your real friends are. We’re trying to help u succeed.”
“I was being very friendly, just reminding him, ‘We’re the ones who helped get you elected and the people who support us are the people who helped get you elected, and we want to continue to support you in that way,’” he told McClatchy in an interview in his office here, an airy, light-filled space overlooking the mountains.
In the interview and during his trip through the district, Labrador, who is also strongly considering a run for governor, stressed that reaching an agreement on repealing Obamacare is imperative. He expressed a willingness to work with the White House and Republican leadership, urging them to incorporate more conservative buy-in earlier on. That is now happening as some in Congress, including the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, collaborate with the White House — in particular, with Vice President Mike Pence — to cobble together a new proposal. Freedom Caucus members don’t relish a fight with the administration, and many conservatives are eager to find a way to get on board.
“The process has been much more productive, much more results-oriented, than it was back in February and March,” said Tim Phillips, the president of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which allied with the Freedom Caucus in opposing the last proposal but is involved in the latest discussions. “There’s a desire to get this done that’s really strong. It has to be a genuine piece of legislation, but I know our activists, our supporters, our team wants to get this done, I know the White House certainly does, the Freedom Caucus and House leadership have shown the same desire.”
Labrador agrees, and repeatedly made the case for full repeal on his trip back home. But the strong-arming tactics employed last time around, broadly speaking, aren’t ever going to be effective with his cadre, he said.
“If anybody knows a member of the Freedom Caucus, you know threats don’t work,” Labrador said in the interview, responding to White House social media director Dan Scavino’s call earlier this month for a primary against Freedom Caucus member Justin Amash, another critic of the last health care bill. “We went to Congress to do what we promised our constituents that we’re going to do. We’re going to keep our word, even if there’s political fallout because of it.”
Yet for these hardliners, so far there appears to be little backlash back home, at least from GOP constituents. There wasn’t much local Republican anger directed at members like Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina or at Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio as they returned for the recess period, according to reports. Many of these Freedom Caucus members come from deeply conservative districts, and voters were well aware that they were electing officials who planned to say “no” frequently in Washington.
It’s one thing, however, to clash with Democrats or so-called “establishment” Republicans. It’s another to draw the wrath of Trump, who remains very popular with the grassroots.
But in this early test, even staunch Trump supporters in Labrador’s district didn’t appear to hold a grudge against the Freedom Caucus for breaking with the president. It’s a significant development, given that other targets of Trump’s tweets have often faced major fallout, and it’s relevant as battle lines are drawn anew, not just on health care but also on tax reform and down the road, possibly infrastructure.
In Idaho, it wasn’t the strongly pro-Trump voters who were energized to attend Labrador’s town hall and complain about perceived obstinacy on health care. It was Trump opponents who wanted to vent.
That dynamic played out in other Freedom Caucus districts, like that of Rep. Mark Sanford’s in South Carolina. Sanford has said the White House directly threatened him with a primary over his last health care position, but in deep-red South Carolina this month, he found himself dealing with anti-Trump constituents unlikely to favor a candidate more closely aligned with the president.
Asked for comment on the story, White House spokesman Ninio Fetalvo responded, “Obamacare is already collapsing on its own, and will continue to go in the wrong direction as more Americans face skyrocketing premiums, higher deductibles, and less choice. Congress needs to act quickly on a solution for the American people. Our Administration is engaged in those conversations and we are making progress.”
Those Republicans who were in attendance here in Meridian and at other stops on Labrador’s tour desperately want to see the law repealed. But many, including Trump supporters, were supportive of the Freedom Caucus’s last push to make the bill more far-reaching, and were leery of a rush job.
That was the case for Chad Moffat, an early Trump supporter and the president of Boise Mobile Equipment, a company that helps construct fire trucks.
“I think especially here, people want it right. Sometimes doing it fast isn’t always doing it right,” said Moffat in an interview, after taking Labrador for a ride in a firetruck down a misty highway near the airport. “I would not want Trump to back another challenger. I think Congressman Labrador is doing his job, he’s there to make sure President Trump does the best things for this country, and Trump has to acknowledge that he’s going to have people that may not always see eye to eye, and hopefully they come up with something that works together for everybody.”
But negotiating health care and other major legislative priorities can be complex and sensitive, and the congressman was candid in acknowledging the challenges of working with the new, unconventional administration.
Trump “was truly authentic about his lack of ideology. Does that make it frustrating sometimes because you don’t know where he’s going to go? Absolutely,” Labrador told a breakfast gathering at a rustic social club near downtown Boise on a drizzly Tuesday morning, opening with a joke about how Trump hadn’t been his first choice for president — or even his 15th choice, though he actively backed Trump in the general election.
“I always know where I’m going, I always know where my moderate friends are going, I always know where the liberals are going in the Democratic Party,” he continued. “With him, one day or another it could be different, but I don’t think it’s any different than what he told you during the campaign. ... He told you he was going to be practical, he told you he was going to be non-ideological, and ... he said, read the Art of the Deal.”
Also at that breakfast, Labrador expressed concern that “the ‘swamp,’ to be honest with you, is trying to have Trump join, trying to make sure he doesn’t change much, in fact telling him, ‘Ignore those conservatives, you don’t need to talk to conservatives.’ Our goal is to have our leadership and members of Congress listen to Americans, listen to their frustration.”
“If he doesn’t change the way Washington works, if he doesn’t drain the swamp, I think the American people are going to be very, very disappointed,” Labrador said at another point during the breakfast.
Asked in the interview how Trump could demonstrate decisively that he is “draining the swamp” — a favorite Trump campaign slogan referring to cleaning up Washington — Labrador was vague, referencing the Constitution. He emphasized his overall support for the administration so far, and as he did at the breakfast, he pointed in particular to the Supreme Court and Trump’s pro-business efforts.
The Freedom Caucus wants to help Trump, Labrador stressed, pointing to the long conservative wish list — from relaxing regulations to repealing Obamacare — that is now possible with a Republican president. Labrador added at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon that the new Republican control of Washington complicates his decision about a gubernatorial run.
“Some people thought the Freedom Caucus was going to lose influence, obviously that’s not true,” he said in the interview. “There were a lot of people in leadership, outside of leadership (who thought so). The Freedom Caucus is an important component of the House of Representatives. All we want to do is help the president be successful and help our leadership be successful and help the American people be successful.”
The Freedom Caucus, in fact, has often been a thorn in the side of House leadership, and some centrist Republicans saw the health care debacle as more evidence that hardliners lack the ability to actually govern. One member even quit the Freedom Caucus after the last health care flap. Now, there are some signs that various GOP factions are coming together for another crack at repealing and replacing Obamacare, though the situation remains fluid.
Even though his supporters are giving him and the Freedom Caucus some leeway for now, there’s no question, Labrador said, that an agreement on Obamacare repeal must be reached before the midterms.
At the town hall, a self-described centrist who opposed the last health care proposal, as well as other more liberal-sounding questioners, demanded why a GOP-controlled Washington was still struggling to land big-ticket accomplishments even though Republicans control the executive and legislative branches.
And at the breakfast, several attendees were more supportive of the last GOP health care proposal, questioning whether the Freedom Caucus was making the perfect the enemy of the good, though they avoided blaming Labrador or Trump for the bill’s crumbling.
John Venardos, a Boise breakfast attendee who works in the nutrition and dietary supplement industry, said he wasn’t upset with Labrador for his role in stymieing the last bill. But, he warned, “If by November 2018 there hasn’t been demonstrable progress on health care, on tax reform, voters will have a determinative effect on members of Congress.”
Labrador doesn’t disagree.
“The level of frustration the American people have, that’s why Trump is president,” he said. “If we don’t listen, they’re going to get rid of all of us because they’re so frustrated with the way things are happening in Washington.”