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By Katy O’Donnell, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The first meeting of the House Freedom Caucus, founded by nine conservatives in search of a more hard-line alternative to the Republican Study Committee, was supposed to be concerned with organization: drafting the bylaws, choosing a leadership structure, figuring out staffing and dues.

But the two dozen or so members invited to the meeting were less interested in the nuts and bolts of forming a caucus than they were with winning a bitter fight with Democrats over immigration policy.

Specifically, the group was trying to figure out what course to take if the Senate couldn’t come to a vote on a Homeland Security appropriations bill that the House had amended to nullify President Barack Obama’s liberalization of immigration policy.

The next caucus meeting went much the same way as the first, with the members discussing ways that a final deal might politically punish the president. Nearly forgotten was that after two official sessions, the caucus still hadn’t picked a chairman, or, for that matter, even decided if it should have one.

It’s tempting to see the Freedom Caucus’ haphazard beginnings as inevitable, given how conservative Republicans have bounced from crisis to crisis since the 2010 election sent the first class of Tea Party-backed firebrands to Congress. Immigration was just the latest in a series of issues on which they have had little to offer except furious opposition.

But the fact that some of the House’s most contrarian members were putting their heads together over strategy and formally creating a caucus to represent their shared interests was a significant change from the ad hoc approach of the past four years.

“I’ve learned some valuable lessons about how to do things wrong,” says two-term Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, who had chastised fellow conservatives in January for their last-minute, ill-fated coup against House Speaker John A. Boehner.

“I have decided,” Mulvaney says, “that maybe it’s better to work within structure and organization, as opposed to going on TV by myself and setting my hair on fire.”

The Freedom Caucus is a new attempt by conservatives to work within the system in order to change it, pushing their leaders further to the right by using its bloc of votes to demand legislative changes in the final two years of Obama’s administration.

Their rationale is much the same as that used by the group of conservatives who in 1973 started the Republican Study Committee to keep a check on party leaders and make sure they didn’t become too moderate.

The invitation-only caucus will take positions just on legislation on which nearly all of its members agree, according to one of the founders, second-term Rep. Raul R. Labrador of Idaho. That would force party leaders to decide between modifying a bill in order to win the support of between 30 and 40 conservatives or trying to attract 20 moderates and Democrats.

That conservatives find such a new caucus necessary, though, is evidence of the persistent rifts within the Republican Party, which is an advantage for Obama and the Democrats.

These fissures separate conservatives and moderates on some issues, and divide the rank and file from their leaders in other cases.

“From our perspective, conservatives kind of have two obstacles in their way,” says Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs for the Club for Growth, an anti-tax political action committee. “One of them is Obama,” Roth says, “and the other is GOP leadership.”

Republican leaders, Roth says, are “scared of their own shadow.”

The 2014 elections gave Republicans their largest majority in the House since before the New Deal. But the gains included moderates who aren’t eager to hold votes on social issues, and the conference had some “stumbles,” as Boehner puts it, in its first month. Party leaders were forced to pull two bills from the floor after moderates revolted against an anti-abortion measure and conservatives rejected a border security bill.

Conservatives are successfully moving the party further right, however, in fits and starts. “As a group, we can be more effective, not by being destructive in the process, not by being oppositional,” says John Fleming of Louisiana, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus. “Destructive would be taking down bills, voting against rules. We can do that, but that’s not really our goal. Our goal is to say you know, we’re 30-40 strong, work with us.”

Some conservative priorities, including trade, privacy protections and changes to patent litigation, will advance in bipartisan bills this Congress. Others will get airing in messaging votes that leadership will use to both placate the base and set up a contrast with Democrats.

Meanwhile, conservatives will also take a piecemeal approach to their agenda, passing modest bills and using the appropriations process to scoop up small victories. If legislating is the art of the possible, the rabble-rousers who shut down the government over an impossible goal in October 2013 are taking steps in that direction.

For all their talk of working within the system, though, the Freedom Caucus Republicans are not averse to street fights to get their way, including changing the House process to allow for more amendments. That’s generating some hard feelings and skepticism about their real aims.

Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham, however, argues that conservatives aren’t merely oppositional — that they’re trying to reform the party, and reform can be messy.

“A lot of the forces of the status quo want to paint a picture of governing versus not governing,” Needham says, “and I think that’s a totally false narrative.”

Significantly, two of the most important victories for the conservative movement over the past four years have been the prohibition on earmarks, which was a change in the House process, and the establishment of sequestration under the Budget Control Act of 2011, which came from a dramatic standoff when Republicans threatened to not raise the debt ceiling.

There have been conservative revolutions before, and the revolutionaries typically lose their counter-establishment zeal once they become part of the establishment. Already, some are furious that one-time ally Steve Scalise of Louisiana, now the House majority whip, has sided with the other party leaders to kick dissenters off the whip team. Two conservative whips, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Ron DeSantis of Florida, one of the nine Freedom Caucus founders, stepped aside from the team when the brouhaha erupted.

The development appeared to bear out Sidney Blumenthal’s observation of the Reagan-era conservative movement that “even when conservatives are in power they refuse to adopt the psychology of an establishment.”

“By accepting governmental responsibility,” Blumenthal wrote in The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, “the conservatives’ spirit as a lean and hungry movement of outsiders would be diminished.”

The latest crop of congressional conservatives includes people who want to legislate and people who don’t. They now appear to be facing a moment when they will either be changed by the system they’re trying to change or they’ll be marginalized.

Not everyone thinks incremental progress on their agenda is a desirable goal, for instance. Some hard-liners, spurred on by outside groups, discourage trying to make small changes to the 2010 health care law on the theory that it saps momentum for an eventual repeal.

“It’s one of the challenges we face. But when you step back and say, ‘OK as a conservative what can you get done?’ I think you’d be foolish to think that you’re going to accomplish any major conservative goals with this president in place,” Mulvaney says. “But to say that we can’t get some successes I think is capitulating way too early.”

Still, conservatives will push their leaders to go as big as they can. Rep Jim Jordan of Ohio, who eventually took the post of chairman of the Freedom Caucus, told a Heritage Action policy conference in January, “We accomplish in proportion to what we attempt.”

The GOP-majority Congress will have to navigate several deadlines that could become flashpoints. And the fact that Republicans want to do all 12 appropriations bills separately and under regular order means there won’t be much time for other legislation.

The Freedom Caucus aims to coalesce behind “one, two, three things that we can ask for out of each of these fights,” according to Labrador.

“There are two reasons” to force fights in the next two years, Labrador says. “The first reason is for messaging. But I think we have to do it for more than just messaging. You can actually pass things when you have a Republican House and a Republican Senate.”

Conservatives are willing to confront their own party leaders — they’re just doing it in a quieter way.

Republicans ran in 2014 on “two themes,” Labrador says — repealing the health care law and stopping Obama’s immigration order. “Those were winning issues for Republicans,” he says, “and somehow now our leadership is shying away from those issues, when they brought us these huge majorities.”

Rank-and-file Republicans, meanwhile, are frustrated with Heritage. House Republicans called Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint to task during a January conference, complaining that Heritage Action’s definition of conservatism is unrealistic and its legislative scorecard too harsh. Some conservatives, including Mulvaney, criticized the group in the summer of 2013 for its tactics on the farm bill, accusing it of trying to punish lawmakers who voted for a farm bill deal that Heritage initially lobbied for.

“We don’t have a litmus test,” Heritage’s Needham says. “I’m not in the business of saying who’s sufficiently conservative and who’s not.”

Needham argues that intraparty fights can actually be productive, and that instigating dramatic confrontations on an issue effectively desensitizes the public to charges of radicalism by airing out the arguments on both sides.

He has a point. The workhorses and show-horses on the right occasionally butt heads, but their approaches to developing a more conservative Republican Party are generally complementary. Intraparty squabbles and scorched-earth tactics that seem self-defeating can hurt the conservative cause in the short term, but supporters point out that the dramatic confrontations also serve to reframe political debate and move the GOP to the right — and so far the fighting hasn’t cost it at the polls.

Because of showdowns last year on highway appropriations and the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, for example, conservatives will get another bite at the apple this year. In fact, it looks like they’ve already won on the Ex-Im Bank; the program will expire this summer if Congress does nothing, and party leaders might not object.

The headaches in the past two Congresses over the farm bill, meanwhile, demonstrated how heavy a lift the next one will be if serious changes aren’t made. Needham sees the drawn-out negotiations over the last bill as a first step toward an overhaul of agriculture policy.

“There were all sorts of stories, ‘This Congress can’t even pass a farm bill’ — well, good. That’s a good thing, when you don’t pass a policy that doesn’t fit the 21st century,” Needham says.

Disrupting the status quo is necessarily messy, he says, and “the people who have a problem with that are the people who have some sort of fetish for the trains running on time.”

Some conservatives also say their public squabbles have helped Republican leaders establish a harder negotiating position with Democrats. But others want a less aggressive approach, even if they apply pressure from the inside.

Dramatic floor fights can “set up an us-versus-them mentality with some people within the conservative conference,” Mulvaney says. “The ability to marginalize conservatives because of things like that has always bothered me.”

The most important of the intraparty fights the Freedom Caucus will pick, its founders say, is over internal House process — itself a sign of the distance the new crop of conservatives has traveled since arriving in Washington talking about term limits and sneering at “career politicians.”

“More amendments, more participation from the members — that may be where you see the biggest push out of us in the first year,” Mulvaney says, adding that people “who are not hard-core right-wingers” have shown interest in the new caucus because of it.

“They are extraordinarily frustrated that they’ve been here four years but they haven’t had a real debate on the floor of the House” and don’t get to offer amendments, he says. “They’re very frustrated that they get a take-it-or-leave-it vote on things like the tax extenders.”

Mulvaney dismisses the suggestion that an agenda topped by internal-process reforms is a bit of a leap from the burn-it-all-down flavor of Tea-Party-backed conservatives’ campaigns five years ago.

Recent moves by Republican leaders — such as when Scalise’s office said members who voted against a procedural motion could be kicked off the whip team — will make overhauling the process a grassroots issue, according to Mulvaney.

“I’m not interested in taking on my grassroots over a procedural matter,” he says. “So to the extent the rules are politicized, the rules are now politicized. So that’s why process reform is going to be a big deal.”

The consolidation of power over a rule is all the more significant because several of the Freedom Caucus founders trace the group’s inception to the rule vote for the fiscal 2015 spending package, which passed due to a couple of switches, and the realization that they could have taken down the rule if they’d had a plan.

If conservatives don’t get the changes to the process they want, it could be a platform in the next Congress, since there’s speculation the new caucus wants to elevate one of its own to the speakership in 2016, and it’s easy to see them wooing members with promises of a more “open and accountable” body, as caucus founder Justin Amash of Michigan puts it.

“What is the point of having power?” a senior conservative aide says. “Well, the point is to make change for our country. We’re always told to hold off until there’s a Republican president — ‘If we move too far to the right or too far to the left we’re going to lose power.’ ”

The debt ceiling, the catalyst of conservatives’ recent successes, will have to be raised again in the summer. It’ll be a test of their more disciplined approach; conservatives warn vaguely that they can’t raise the ceiling without doing something about the debt, but they haven’t coalesced around a demand yet.

“For all the Republicans intoning, ‘We must get things done,’ ” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) told an audience at Heritage in January, “if we simply settle into business as usual in this town, and keep growing and growing and growing the leviathan … not only will we not win elections, we’ll get walloped, and we’ll deserve to get walloped.”

The possibility that Obama would try to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally — an idea tossed around in recent years — is real, some conservatives worry, and would cause all hell to break loose. That’s part of why they’re pushing back on Cuba and immigration, to check Obama’s attempts to bypass Congress. But they don’t have a debt-ceiling strategy yet, Mulvaney says: “We react … I don’t know, because right now we’re dealing with immigration.”

For all the attempts to become more organized, conservatives’ handling of the DHS funding standoff has tread familiar territory. Rather than dealing narrowly with the latest executive action, hard-liners pressed party leaders to ask for the moon. They included provisions rescinding orders from 2011 and 2012, alienating Democrats who disapprove of the White House’s “prosecutorial discretion” argument for the most recent action.

A bipartisan deal may have pressured Obama. But as the GOP feuding led to the Feb. 27 defeat of a temporary spending bill, it kept the pressure within the party. How conservatives react to the outcome could determine what they can get done in the next two years.

Photo: Congressman Jim Jordan speaking at the 2012 CPAC in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

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Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

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