WASHINGTON — You could be forgiven if you’d never heard of the Republican Study Committee until recently.
The RSC, a large group of House Republicans that is part in-house think tank, part conservative ballast has drawn little attention in recent years. The Freedom Caucus, who share the RSC’s goal of making legislation more conservative, has lately been the public face of the hard-right compass of Congress, espousing a ride or die negotiating style that’s rankled Republican leadership. But on Friday, RSC chairman Mark Walker and the group were thrust front and center — when Walker found himself in the White House, and in the middle of a conflict between Republican leadership and an administration desperate for its first real legislative win and the conservative group that might keep them from getting it.
Walker and 12 other members of the RSC (whose membership numbered 170 people in 2016) were the latest House Republicans to meet with President Donald Trump, as leadership and the White House work to find the votes to pass their Obamacare repeal bill next week.
The purpose of the meeting was clear: leadership has struggled to get conservative members of the House on board with the bill, and this was meant, in part, to show that the bill had conservative support. Attendees received Trump’s word that some of the changes to the bill they wanted would be made. And Trump emerged declaring the meeting an unequivocal success. While some of the lawmakers had arrived “either a no or a maybe,” he told the press after the meeting, “every single person in this room is now a yes.” He also made his strongest endorsement of the bill so far, saying he was “100 percent behind it.”
But as conservatives go, the RSC was never really the problem. The drive to pass the health care plan has become the latest chapter in a battle between Republican leadership and the Freedom Caucus. As leadership declared success after the Friday meeting, Freedom Caucus members pushed back, declaring they would not still back the bill. “The scene at the White House was political theater,” Michigan Rep. Justin Amash told the Huffington Post.
It’s not the first time Walker, an affable former pastor from North Carolina, has found himself in the middle of the push and pull between these two forces within the House GOP. In fact it’s a conflict that seemed inevitable by his own accounting of what he wanted the RSC to accomplish under his chairmanship. “Effective conservatism” was his goal, he told BuzzFeed News in a January interview in his office. “I hate to use the word aggressive because it gives a negative connotation,” he said of his early meetings with leadership, “but we’re being very proactive to say here’s what we want to accomplish and here’s what we want to move on.”
His approach has earned him the respect of leadership — who sees him as “an honest broker,” per Sean Joyce, the former chief of staff for Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry — but also some Freedom Caucus conservatives, who see him reasserting the power of the RSC, something they haven’t felt to be the case in recent years.
“I’m complimentary,” Arizona Rep. David Schweikert told BuzzFeed News of the RSC last week, before the Trump meeting was on the books. He wasn’t always; he was among the handful of RSC members who helped found the conservative Freedom Caucus two years ago in order to fill a gap left by an RSC they saw as having been rendered essentially toothless. “It’s nice to have others in the mix too,” he said.
But a more assertive RSC has spotlighted the inherent tension between the two House conservative groups. Both want more conservative legislation coming out of the House, but beyond that the goals of their membership often diverge. Freedom Caucus has worked at times to defang House leadership, and takes credit for the ousting of former House Speaker John Boehner. RSC’s membership, on the other hand, includes several House leaders, like majority Whip Steve Scalise and Chief Deputy Whip McHenry. While the Freedom Caucus often votes as a bloc, leveraging its numbers to force concessions from leadership, the RSC’s membership is more ideologically disparate, ranging from House leaders to several Freedom Caucus members, and participation level varies — some Representatives maintain their membership purely to have access to the RSC’s policy shop.
Amid those competing concerns, Walker raised some eyebrows last month when he released a statement condemning a leaked draft of leadership’s healthcare bill. “Absent substantial changes, I cannot vote for the bill and, in good conscience, cannot recommend RSC Members vote for it either,” Walker said in the statement, which was sent out from the RSC press office, rather than Walker’s personal office. It was that last part that irked some RSC members, who felt that he was putting them in a bad position by purporting to speak for the whole group, not all of whom were of the same mind. “It puts me in a tough spot,” Rep. Tim Walberg told The Hill.
Rep. Tom McClintock deemed the release an example of “Freedom Caucus crap” in an RSC meeting, per Politico, and he was not alone in seeing it that way. The statement followed on the heels of Meadows blasting the bill to CNN, and some took Walker’s response as a something of a glance over his shoulder at the other Mark.
“There’s a natural competition and a natural tension of two conservative organizations that are attempting to have an impact on the legislative process, and there’s a natural tension of course because these two conservative leaders are from the state,” said Chief Deputy Whip McHenry, himself a member of the North Carolina delegation.
Indeed, North Carolina political observers say the culmination of Walker and Meadows’ respective ambitions could well be a clash in a potential statewide run, and the relevance of their dynamic on the Hill leading up to that is not lost on anyone.
Meadows is complimentary of his counterpart, whom he calls a “friend” and says has “done an outstanding job of trying to understand the issues and represent a much larger group than I am.” The two met for dinner last week to discuss strategy for securing changes to the health care bill before its final passage, Meadows told BuzzFeed News on his way to that meeting. But in the week following, the two have pursued noticeably different strategies for securing changes to the bill. Walker, after his meeting at the white House Friday, issued a circumspect endorsement of the bill: “On balance and with the changes we agreed to in the bill’s final text, I can vote for it.” Meadows, on the other hand, has said those changes are not enough and appears prepared to vote against the bill Thursday if more are not made.
Meadows, clearly, wishes RSC would play things differently. “The RSC has shown its relevance,” Meadows said last week on the way to that meeting, “but only when they took a position” — the very thing that several members of the RSC had criticized Walker for. Otherwise, Meadows said. “It’s just another caucus that gets together and has intellectual debate. Meadows opted not to renew his RSC membership this year.
A Freedom Caucus source brushes off the idea of any kind of friction between the two Marks. If there’s any tension, the source says, it’s over these tactics: when, in the minds of Freedom Caucus members, “RSC members maybe concede a policy position too early or settle for something too little.”
Walker evidently disagrees. “We’re not an opposition caucus,” he said of the RSC last week.
Asked if that was meant as a jab at the Freedom Caucus, Walker, who turned down an invitation to join the group after he was elected to Congress, told BuzzFeed News that he would just speak for the RSC. But Walker added that the RSC is trying to be constructive, “rather than just trying to create the drama around [the health care bill]. And maybe that’s more outside groups than it is the Freedom Caucus, but there is some kind of—sometimes there is an alliance there.”
It’s a fitting moment for the RSC to return to the headlines: One of its former chairmen, Vice President Mike Pence, now sits a heartbeat away from the presidency; another is Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, whose department is charged with implementing whatever new health care legislation gets passed.
Some credit Walker’s chairmanship for the group’s moment in the sun. At the very least, there’s a lot of activity behind the scenes. “There’s a lot of reaching out going on, a lot more activity, a lot more briefings,” said a House GOP aide of the RSC. “It’s just kind of woken up.”
Part of that is the new political landscape, where Republicans now have the power to legislate, rather than just take largely symbolic stands. “I just think we have an operational space that’s more conducive to getting things done since we still have a majority in the Senate and a Republican in the White House, it allows us to advance conservative policy perhaps more efficiently,” former RSC Chairman Bill Flores told BuzzFeed News.
He attributes the increased prominence to a combination of the media and the excitement of the issue. “I think it’s just because you’ve got more eyeballs watching the debate,” he said.
Walker is among those who caution against gauging relevance by headlines.
“These kinds of moments in DC, it kind of flushes out, whether it’s about a cause or whether it’s about attention. And I think as long as you have the right cause, there’s much more opportunity to work together than when it’s just about attention or the press clips,” Walker said in January.
On Friday, he might have managed to pull off both.