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‘Not what it was’: House Freedom Caucus wrestles with its future amid split over tactics and Trump

By Melanie Zanona and Annie Grayer, CNN

(CNN) — When a band of House Freedom Caucus members met last month to strategize over how to hold GOP leadership accountable for the bipartisan debt ceiling deal, not everyone from the far-right group was invited.

Around a half dozen hardliners opted to hold a secret strategy session, where they hashed out a game plan to tank a key procedural vote in retaliation for their demands being ignored in the debt limit fight, according to a source involved in the effort.

Normally, this type of plotting would have played out in one of the weekly Freedom Caucus meetings. But side sessions and private discussions among a small bloc of rebellious lawmakers have become more common and even necessary, some members say, after months of internal disagreements over tactics, policies and allegiances to their party’s leadership have fomented distrust within the group’s ranks.

Those remarkable tensions reached an all-time high when a majority of members voted to oust firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia from the caucus just before the July Fourth recess, with many members fed up with Greene – not for her string of controversial rhetoric – but for continually bashing some of her Freedom Caucus colleagues. They’ve also taken issue with Greene’s fierce loyalty to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, which they feel runs counter to the founding mission of the Freedom Caucus – a crew that built its reputation as a thorn in the side of leadership.

“People don’t feel comfortable talking in Freedom Caucus meetings because of Marjorie and others, so the group has sort of broken up,” one GOP lawmaker told CNN, who worried Greene would reveal their floor tactics to McCarthy ahead of time. The “Freedom Caucus is not what it was when (former Republican House Speaker John) Boehner was in office,” the lawmaker said.

But not everyone supported Greene’s ousting: Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a Freedom Caucus co-founder who also has become close with McCarthy, was against the idea of kicking her out, according to a source familiar – just the latest example of how the group has splintered.

The recent cracks that have emerged within the caucus – a band of roughly 40 rabble-rousers who derive much of their power from being unified against Republican leadership – are emblematic of a broader identity crisis that the eight-year-old group has been wrestling with. Initially formed to help pull the GOP legislative agenda to the right, the ultra conservative caucus quickly became a fanclub for Donald Trump, more defined by personalities than a devotion to policy.

Now, with Republicans back in the majority and the ex-president running for office again, the Freedom Caucus is grappling with what they stand for and how best to wield their potential power. The boisterous group has not only been divided over key strategy and policy decisions, but also whether to support Trump for president in 2024. Notably, several members of the group have endorsed other GOP candidates in the crowded primary field.

One conservative lawmaker who has been in meetings with Freedom Caucus members and McCarthy said members of the group tend to all ask for different things, undermining their negotiating hand. A more fractured caucus dilutes their relevance and influence, though with such a slim majority, it only takes a handful of members to throw the House into chaos.

“Days are numbered anyway for the group,” the conservative lawmaker, who is often aligned with the group, told CNN. “Because they go in 100 different directions.”

The January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol was an early inflection point for the group. Two members who received backlash on the right for opposing Trump’s effort to overturn the election, Reps. Chip Roy of Texas and Ken Buck of Colorado, contemplated quitting the Freedom Caucus after the insurrection, multiple sources familiar with their thinking told CNN. Roy, who initially supported legal challenges to the 2020 election but ultimately soured on the effort, decided to stay in the group and has since taken over as policy chairman, a role that has put him at the center of high-profile fights with House GOP leadership. Buck, too, opted to keep his membership.

Now both men are among the core contingent of Freedom Caucus members who have routinely deviated from the pack this year, becoming their own sort of unofficial sub-caucus of flame throwers.

A Roy spokesman said in a statement to CNN: “This office will not comment on internal deliberations, private discussions, or any claims made by the media’s ‘anonymous sources.’”

Freedom Caucus defenders point out that they have grown in numbers in recent years, so naturally, there tends to be less unity when there are more voices. The group also won significant concessions from McCarthy during the speaker’s race, including more representation on key committees. And their MAGA brand of politics has become more mainstream in the GOP – meaning there is less of a need to antagonize leadership.

GOP Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland dismissed the Greene drama, saying, “It wasn’t even a speed bump.” And he also offered full-throated praise for Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, who helped fight for the speakership concessions.

“He is doing a great job,” Harris said. “Scott Perry is a true leader.”

‘Mad at her for playing ball’

Even though the vote to oust Greene was overwhelming, as one source put it, there has still been confusion in the days following the vote if it had officially gone into effect. That is partly because Perry was waiting to meet with Greene in person, a source tells CNN, as he was not able to get in touch with her during the two-week recess.

While Harris said the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was calling Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, another group member, a “little bitch” during a heated confrontation on the House floor, others say the issue stems from publicly trashing her Freedom Caucus colleagues for opposing McCarthy’s speakership and for revolting over the debt ceiling deal, among other things.

“The reality is they’re mad at her for playing ball with McCarthy and, and still being one of Trump’s favorites,” a conservative lawmaker told CNN. “It’s pretty evident. That’s what’s gone down.”

Greene, who in the days following the vote attended a Trump rally in South Carolina, did not specifically address her membership status when recently asked for comment, but did say in a defiant statement that she would “never change.”

“In Congress, I serve Northwest Georgia first, and serve no group in Washington,” she said. “My America First credentials, guided by my Christian faith, are forged in steel, seared into my character, and will never change.”

While Greene’s loyalty to McCarthy put a target on her back, Jordan, the first chairman of the caucus, has been able to walk the tightrope of balancing his allegiance to the group while also becoming a reliable leadership ally, playing the inside game to earn valuable committee assignments and other perks. However, he hasn’t been getting as much heat for his leadership ties, even his unwavering support of McCarthy as speaker, in part because he doesn’t publicly criticize his Freedom Caucus colleagues for not failing in line.

But, tension toward the powerful Judiciary Committee chairman, who would oversee any impeachment inquiry House Republicans pursue, have been slowly building: GOP Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, who serves in the Freedom Caucus, has called Jordan a RINO – “Republican in Name Only” – behind his back, according to sources. A spokesperson for Good denied it.

Despite growing frustration toward them, Jordan and Greene have some of the highest name recognition in the group and bring in huge fundraising hauls for the House Freedom Fund, which contributes to the caucus.

The conservative lawmaker said Greene is “bigger than the group” and said “nobody has done more for the cause” than Jordan.

Greene, before the vote to oust her, explained to CNN that the reason she has been on the opposite side of a number of her Freedom Caucus colleagues is because she has wanted to focus her efforts on the Appropriations process, where she is trying to get her priorities reflected in what government programs get funded or defunded this year.

“Everybody’s not understood why I didn’t get in the big fight on the speaker’s race, ‘Why didn’t she go to town on the debt ceiling bill and stuff? Why is she not doing the whole hold the floor circus show?’ It’s all about appropriations. That’s the only power Republicans have is appropriations and so that’s where I think we have to work,” Greene told CNN.

‘Don’t vote against the team’

More broadly, there has been growing frustration inside the group about how bloated the Freedom Caucus has become. One GOP member complained that there are around a dozen lawmakers who never show up to weekly meetings. Another lawmaker accused some of their Freedom Caucus colleagues of just using their membership as “primary insurance,” to help protect them from a potential far-right challenger.

Some members are now pushing to change their membership rules in order to make the group more nimble. One idea being floated is to wait six months before admitting freshmen to the crew, so that they can prove themselves with floor votes and behavior – a practice that was initially adhered to, but has since fallen by the wayside.

The more wide-ranging membership has led to more division in the ranks. The Freedom Caucus has been split over policy, including whether to defund the Justice Department or FBI and whether to force a snap impeachment vote on President Joe Biden or members of his Cabinet.

And the caucus has also been divided over tactics, with some lawmakers arguing they are more effective when they pick and choose their battles, while others want to throw up roadblocks at nearly every turn.

Rep. Randy Weber of Texas, a longtime member of the group, said he has stood up in House GOP-wide conference meetings to admonish the conduct of some of his colleagues.

“It should not be that when there’s something on the floor that you don’t like, your automatic reaction is to vacate the chair. We can’t keep doing that, people,” he told CNN. “Vote against the bill if you don’t like it. But don’t vote against the team. That ought to be a cardinal rule.”

Boebert, however, has previously defended their push to use hardball tactics to get what they want.

“We proved at the beginning of the year that when you stand on principle, you can deliver amazing wins for the American people,” she said. “We fought to have the tools to do what we are doing today. And it’s time that we stop bragging about our tools, admiring our tools, and actually get some nicks in them.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Haley Talbot and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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