For the hardliners of the Freedom Caucus, a conservative group renowned for its ideological purity, the healthcare defeat they helped inflict on Donald Trump showed their willingness to wreak havoc had reached a new high.
The group has a record of ruining the plans of party leaders. But they attained a new potency on Friday by bringing down the top legislative priority of a president from their own party — and gravely denting his credibility as a leader in the process.
Faced with Mr Trump’s arm-twisting and his argument that the bill to repeal Obamacare was the best they were going to get, the Freedom Caucus turned its back on the president and stuck to its insistence that the legislation did not go far enough.
It was a moment few Republicans could have conceived after their party stormed to victory last year. Mr Trump’s win as a candidate with few ideological moorings led party leaders to declare privately that the Freedom Caucus was a spent force.
How wrong they were.
The group does not disclose its members officially, but is reckoned to comprise between 30 and 40 lawmakers from mostly southern and western states in the House of Representatives. Led by Mark Meadows of North Carolina, they make a show of standing up for fiscal rectitude, free markets and abhorring government control.
They are a fraction of the 237 House Republicans, but when they revolt there are enough of them to deny party leaders the majority they need to pass bills. Wavering moderates on the other side of the party made things even harder for the White House on Friday.
Mr Trump and House speaker Paul Ryan responded to defeat by saying they wanted to move on to something else, namely tax reform. But Mr Meadows, ironically, did not want to abandon healthcare.
“I remain wholeheartedly committed to keeping the promise I made to my [North Carolina] constituents — to fully repealing and replacing #Obamacare,” he tweeted after the bill was pulled.
The Freedom Caucus was formed as a breakaway faction in early 2015, but many of its members have roots in the anti-government Tea Party rebellion that elected a wave of conservatives in 2010 — which was inspired partly by revulsion at Obamacare.
In 2013 many of the lawmakers who went on to join the Freedom Caucus helped shut down the federal government for 16 days in a failed attempt to defund Obamacare. That prompted Devin Nunes, a moderate Republican, to describe his hardline colleagues as “lemmings with suicide vests”. In 2015 they helped bring down John Boehner as House speaker.
It was an effective opposition force and an effective approach for paralysis, but I never saw them being helpful in government
Adam Brandon, head of FreedomWorks, a conservative group with close ties to the lawmakers, said Freedom Caucus members should be Mr Trump’s greatest allies. “They are the guys who got elected to drain the swamp,” he said, using Mr Trump’s slogan for eradicating political corruption. But they proved to be his greatest enemy on Friday.
The conservatives diverge from Mr Trump because his own political identity is a hodgepodge. The Freedom Caucus is intent on shrinking the federal budget deficit, but Mr Trump’s policies on healthcare and social security for retirees exhibit few such concerns. The Freedom Caucus despises government rules, but Mr Trump wanted to retain certain Obamacare regulations that are popular with voters.
The Freedom Caucus is also fiercely conservative on social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, but Mr Trump is not. On Friday he did, however, try unsuccessfully to use abortion to pressure the Freedom Caucus, warning members that opposing the bill would mean rejecting provisions aimed at hurting Planned Parenthood, a women’s healthcare group that performs abortions.
Tim Naftali, a professor at New York University, said the Freedom Caucus was a successful opposition group that had never demonstrated they understood how to govern. “It was an effective opposition force and an effective approach for paralysis, but I never saw them being helpful in government.”
He said one of their problems was that helping the government to work would undermine their fundamental argument that the federal government was too involved in the business of the American people.
Mick Mulvaney, a former Freedom Caucus member, is now Mr Trump’s budget director and had tried to bridge the divide between the White House and conservatives, which is likely to reappear in future legislative debates.
David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report, said “purity” was what motivated the group. “They campaigned on nothing less than a full repeal [of Obamacare] and they are sticklers about wanting to deliver to the primary base that elected them,” he said.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington
Sample the FT’s top stories for a week
You select the topic, we deliver the news.