Soon, however, House Republicans found themselves in a bubble of frustration, which only expanded as their legislative efforts went nowhere. Meadows’s motion to vacate was the pinprick that provided release. “The backstory of guys coming after Boehner was based on slowly rising tensions,” said Michael Steel, a former top communications aide to Boehner. “It wasn’t so much about Boehner’s leadership as it was frustrations with the limits of their own power—this feeling of impotence.”
Still, Boehner’s leadership did play a role: Conservatives complained that the Ohio Republican had boxed the rank-and-file out of all House business, crafting legislation and making deals with other leaders only behind closed doors. Boehner’s dethroning was viewed largely as a victory for the House’s right flank. And while the Freedom Caucus didn’t endorse Ryan as Boehner’s successor, their moves nevertheless showed that they had power.
The caucus exercised that power steadily in the months that followed. Republican presidential-primary candidates like Cruz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul coveted their endorsements. While Trump wasn’t their first choice, they became some of his most outspoken advocates throughout the general election. And many would ultimately credit them with fanning the flames behind the real-estate mogul’s ascent. The group’s chairman at the time of the campaign, Jim Jordan, told me, in January 2016, that the GOP would lose the election if they “marginalized Trump [and] ignored the Trump message.”
But if historians someday try to map the influence of the Freedom Caucus—or perhaps Tea Party conservatism more broadly—February 9, 2018, will represent an inflection point. Early that morning, the House shuttled through a government-spending package that, along with raising the debt ceiling, shattered budget caps for defense and nondefense spending. It was the kind of bill that Republicans would have railed against under Obama, indicting it as a fiscal death wish on future generations. Yet, ultimately, 167 Republicans voted in favor of the package—a majority of the majority. In one vote series, the Freedom Caucus’s cri de coeur had been rendered all but moot.
The caucus’s views on spending have always been somewhat unpopular within other wings of the party—among defense hawks and blue-state Republicans, for example. But now, the politics aren’t on their side, either. Obama isn’t around anymore to act as their foil, and today, to lambast House Republican leadership is to lambast Trump, too. The president, after all, supported the spending package. And the House is the only body to successfully pass all of his major legislative pushes, including health-care reform.
“The speaker is aligned on policy with the president. That’s a huge problem for them,” said Rory Cooper, Cantor’s former communications director, referring to the Freedom Caucus. “Their ability to threaten Ryan’s position is now a diminishing asset.”