WASHINGTON — Reps. Mark Meadows and Pramila Jayapal couldn’t be more different.
Meadows is a white Republican from North Carolina and a founding member of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus, a group of lawmakers best known for ousting former House speaker John Boehner and holding up significant pieces of legislation to try to defund Planned Parenthood.
Jayapal is a progressive woman of color from Washington state who came to the House after years of liberal activism. She’s the cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and one of the only members of Congress to talk publicly about her experience having an abortion.
Yet the two have forged a bond born out of a common trait: the desire to be a huge pain in the ass to party leadership.
Meadows, who has done it for years, has a long track record of stirring up trouble. Now, with Democrats in the House majority, he’s ready to help Jayapal do the same.
It began in April, when a budget fight was tearing the Democratic Party apart. Progressive leaders were demanding that a bill to set budget caps for the year be pulled further to the left, to moderates’ dismay. Jayapal and her cochair, Rep. Mark Pocan, built enough support among progressives to kill the bill; ultimately, Democratic leaders had to delay the vote.
It was in the midst of this fight that an unexpected ally approached Jayapal: Meadows wanted to share some tips.
“He came up to me and he was like, ‘I need to tell you all the experiences of the Freedom Caucus so you don't get screwed by your caucus the same way we were screwed by ours,’” Jayapal said in a recent interview with BuzzFeed News.
“I need to tell you all the experiences of the Freedom Caucus so you don't get screwed by your caucus the same way we were screwed by ours.”
Meadows was first elected in 2013, swept into Congress as part of the tea party wave under former president Barack Obama’s tenure. Two years later, the Freedom Caucus, as FiveThirtyEight noted at the time, didn’t have a website or an official roster, but it was powerful enough to end Boehner’s career. In the summer of 2015, Meadows even wrote a House resolution declaring the speaker’s office vacant, arguing that “the Speaker uses the power of the office to punish Members who vote according to their conscience instead of the will of the Speaker.”
The Freedom Caucus was large enough that, without its support, Boehner didn’t have the votes to pass legislation — or to keep his gavel. “They can’t tell you what they’re for. They can tell you everything they’re against,” Boehner said of the caucus in an interview with Politico in 2017. “They’re anarchists. They want total chaos. Tear it all down and start over. That’s where their mindset is.”
Later, when former speaker Paul Ryan took up the post, the conservative hardliners made their presence — and their priorities — known. He lasted three years.
So Meadows knew a thing or two about fighting with party leadership, and he wanted to share what he could with Jayapal. “She doesn’t need strategy tips from the Freedom Caucus chairman,” Meadows recently told BuzzFeed News. Still, he has tried to share his experiences with her, he said. (Meadows is no longer the chair of the caucus, though he chaired it from January 2017 until October this year.)
“She's [a] very capable and talented and thoughtful member. I have great respect for her,” he said. But, he added, “there are certain tactics and strategies and misdirections that you become aware of after you've been here a little bit longer, and so to the extent that I can share my historical perspective, it always makes for members to have better-informed decisions.”
The advice is coming at the moment progressive leaders in Congress need it the most.
This year, they’ve brawled with Democratic leadership about funding for immigrant detention and prescription drug pricing, among other issues. But Jayapal has a problem — though it doesn’t sound like a problem at first: About 40% of the Democratic Caucus counts itself among the CPC’s ranks. Unlike Meadows’ Freedom Caucus, Jayapal’s group is too large and ideologically diverse to wield its votes in a fight against leadership. The group was founded in 1991, long before modern progressive ideals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All existed — and many of its members still don’t support those ideas.
But a new, informal subcaucus is emerging, one that could look a lot more like the Freedom Caucus — at least as far as powerful voting blocs go — formed with new progressive members like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, who came to Congress with the explicit purpose of bucking leadership and pulling the party to the left.
“You can't do anything just by building a movement on the outside.”
Jayapal welcomes it, and she hopes the next election will bring the CPC more members who share that spirit.
“[I] would like to get a bigger core group of people that are, you know, really coming, representing young people, representing folks of color, [and] who are willing to take some riskier and courageous stands to leverage power,” she told BuzzFeed News. “And who also understand both the outside and the inside game. Like, you can't do anything just by building a movement on the outside; you do have to have champions on the inside as well, and you certainly can't do anything on the inside without building a movement on the outside.”
In her ideal future, the “core group” will make the Green New Deal and Medicare for All the party line; the group also aims to overturn the Hyde Amendment — which prevents federal funding for abortion — and maintain a firewall of progressive votes to push back against President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda.
Jayapal’s dream future is Meadows’ nightmare.
In recent weeks, his own mission has been to spread the anti-impeachment gospel. He’s been a leading voice as the inquiry roars on, defending Trump, arguing the closed-door hearings are antidemocratic, and dutifully popping in front of TV cameras to express his unflinching support for the president. And though he’s not on the Intelligence Committee, Meadows has been attending the hearings, live-tweeting through them and railing against Democrats along the way.
But he maintains great affection for Jayapal because he sees in her a “worthy adversary.”
Their first interaction, the Washington Democrat said, was in a hearing related to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report while Republicans were still in the majority. There, she tried to ask a few questions and Meadows repeatedly tried to stop her, arguing her line of questioning was outside the scope of the hearing.
“Right afterwards he came up to me and he said, ‘You're excellent at that,’ or something like that. And I was like, ‘Oh, thank you,’ and then kind of forgot about it,” Jayapal said.
Not long after, on the House floor, Meadows came to compliment her again.
“He said, ‘You're the smartest new member we have,’” she recalled. “I was standing next to [Democratic Rep.] Ro Khanna, so I said, ‘I think you said that to Ro, also,’ and he said, ‘Well, he's almost as smart. You two are the smartest,’ and I said, ‘See, Mark, this is what you do.’ It kind of started like that, you know, silly.”
Later, their conversations got more serious.
In July — in the midst of yet another Democratic Party blowup, which began with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s support for the Republican version of a must-pass border funding bill and spiraled into an all-out war waged in the press — Trump tweeted about “the Squad,” as Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley have come to call themselves on the Hill.
“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly … and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run,” Trump tweeted early one morning. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Days later, he had a new target for his racist ire.
“Rep. Elijah Cummings has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men & women of Border Patrol at the Southern Border, when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous,” he wrote.
Jayapal, who immigrated to the US as a teenager, was devastated and infuriated by the attacks.
“It just shows that Trump will never have the kind of grace and dignity” that Cummings has, she said in an interview on MSNBC. Though she wasn’t surprised, she said she was “so incredibly disturbed.”
So she went to Meadows, perhaps the only person in DC who was close friends with both Cummings and the president. (Cummings has since died. Meadows eulogized him last month, saying, "He's called a number of things — a father, a husband, friend, chairman. For me, I was privileged enough to be able to call him a dear friend.”) Though they’ve agreed not to share the details of that conversation, Jayapal said she was comforted by the discussion.
“You know, Mark is somebody who does think with his head as well as his heart about people,” she said. “We … connected over what it feels like for me as an immigrant to hear the president's nasty remarks. … He actually has a lot of empathy and feels things, I think, quite deeply on a personal level, but also listened to what I had to say.”
“Anybody who's willing to stand up for their constituents instead of leadership here, whether it be Republican or Democrat, I can applaud.”
In interviews with BuzzFeed News, Jayapal and Meadows both said they disagree on “90%” of issues, but added that they try to find ways to work together on civil liberties and Fourth Amendment issues — the 10% where their political ideologies overlap.
Meadows said he enjoys working with Jayapal, because she is “willing to do hard work” and invest in her district.
“And just because she has different constituents than I do shouldn't make me think less of her,” he said. “And so it's really a great admiration for the kind of member she's become. Listen, anybody who's willing to stand up for their constituents instead of leadership here, whether it be Republican or Democrat, I can applaud.”
And politics aside, they just like each other.
“I mean, I probably never would be friends with him if we weren’t here, because I wouldn’t necessarily run into him,” Jayapal said with a smile, “but if I met him at a party, I probably would be.” ●