One day after pledging to vote against the GOP’s budget resolution, which would begin the process of breaking down the Affordable Care Act, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) gathered 24 members of the House Freedom Caucus to talk through possible opposition strategies.
In theory, if the 24 held together, the budget would fail in the House. In reality, as they walked in and out of Room 2203 of the Rayburn Building, few of the House’s staunch conservatives were ready to pull the trigger.
“I just came to understand all the different ideas about where we go next,” said Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), who said he would probably vote for the budget resolution.
“We haven’t made a decision whether to support it or not support it,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the new chairman of the Freedom Caucus.
“I’m not staking out a position on the budget just yet,” Rep. Brian Babin (R-Tex.) said.
The collective shrug provided the latest evidence that Paul’s protest of the resolution would be a familiar, lonely one. His floor speech attacking the budget resolution for making no attempts at deficit reduction — it actually projects a $9.7 trillion increase in the debt by 2026 — was preempted by statements from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) pledging to vote for the resolution.
Thursday’s meeting between Paul and House conservatives was similarly drained free of drama. Talking to reporters outside, Paul largely conceded that conservatives would not defeat the budget resolution. His argument, instead, was that a larger no vote, fully explained by the holdouts, would give them more bargaining power as the Republican agenda marched ahead.
“I wanted to make sure that conservatives in the House knew that, together, we can have impact and influence on what the budget will be,” Paul said. “I heard one person say that, ‘Well, we’ll vote for this now, but we won’t in four months.’ My point is that the Republican leadership will come back and say, ‘You already voted for it once, why not vote for it a second time?’ There’s a danger in being on record for $9.7 trillion in debt.”
That position has made Paul one of very few Republicans still talking about the debt, a focus of Republican ire throughout the Obama years, as a national crisis worth building legislation around. During his presidential campaign, which ended after the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Paul made a number of attempts to draw attention to the national debt and to promote his annual plans to balance the budget with steep spending cuts. Republican voters flocked instead to Donald Trump, who either ignored the debt or said that new economic growth would start chipping away at it.
Months later, most of the Freedom Caucus — 17 members — voted against the GOP’s 2016 budget on debt-reduction grounds. The new budget resolution makes even fewer concessions to debt reduction.
“We want to keep in mind the overall picture, both the deficit and how tired people are Obamacare,” said Rep. Randy Weber (R-Tex.). “I do think there’s a danger of the Republicans actually owning this.”