Revenge of the Republican Moderates

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Representative Chris Collins is interviewed during the 2017 "Congress of Tomorrow" Joint Republican Issues Conference in Philadelphia, on January 25. A member of the Tuesday Group, Collins has been in discussions to revive a health care bill. Mark Makela/REUTERS

When the White House wanted to restart talks on health care this week, it initially reached out not to the Freedom Caucus, the powerful group of conservative hard-liners in the House that President Donald Trump has been bashing on Twitter, but a lesser known Republican caucus. On short notice, administration officials on Monday afternoon summoned seven members of the Tuesday Group, a loose coalition of relatively moderate Republican members in the House, to pitch them on some executive branch ideas for solving the health care impasse. "I was invited at 2 o'clock this afternoon, to be there at 4," Representative Chris Collins of New York, a member of the Tuesday group and early Trump supporter, said afterward.

Related: What is the Freedom Caucus, the conservative group that threatens to kill "Trumpcare"?

Some of the same administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, then came to the Capitol Monday evening to confer with Freedom Caucus members. But, as Collins underscored after his meeting at the White House: "They wanted to start with...those of us who have been strong supporters to brainstorm what we thought." The session, which Collins estimated lasted about an hour and a half, "was certainly a green light to continue these discussion with other members. And I'd just note myself and some of the other Tuesday Group appreciate that the first meeting was with us."

Negotiations are ongoing, but the order in which events unfolded Monday is one of many signals that, after years of being taken for granted, the pragmatist wing of the Republican Party is reasserting itself—and proving a formidable force in Republican-controlled Washington. While far-right conservatives continue to draw the lion's share of attention—and blame—for the collapse of Republicans' health care proposal last month, members of the Tuesday Group also helped sink it.

After all, it was moderate Republicans in the Senate who set the stage for the showdown in the House in the first place, having led the original push in January to provide a landing pad for the millions of people who rely on Obamacare if Republicans were to repeal that 2010 law. Their resistance served as a reminder to the White House and other Republican leaders that they can't simply cut a deal with their far-right flank and expect everyone else to fall in line. One of the main lessons the president appears to have taken away from the debacle: His most promising path for dealmaking cuts through the political center, not its extremes.

"When the Republicans had a larger majority [in Congress], the leadership really could just focus on appeasing the radical group," such as members of the Freedom Caucus in the House, says Norm Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute think tank. But those Republican majorities shrunk in both the House and Senate in 2017, so if Trump and congressional Republicans want to avoid compromising with Democrats, they need to win over nearly all Republican members to pass legislation. When proposals are rewritten to appeal to the far right, that risks losing Republicans who represent Democrat-leaning or swing states, something GOP leaders can no longer afford. "The pragmatic conservative wing [of the GOP] and those people who were elected in districts [2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary] Clinton won or came close to winning, yeah, they're a factor now," says Ornstein.

The Tuesday Group has been around for decades in the House—far longer than the Freedom Caucus, which was an outgrowth of the Tea Party-fueled wave of Republicans elected to Congress in 2010. When Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, retook control of the House in 1994, the Tuesday Group took on a more formal structure as a counterpoint to House Republicans' more conservative faction. That's when it officially took on its name, a nod to its weekly Tuesday meeting to discuss policy and share ideas. Like the Freedom Caucus, the Tuesday Group has no official roster of members, though it's estimated that between 40 and 50 House Republicans are on the group's email list or attend its meetings. Most of its members represent districts in the Northeast, the Rust Belt or West Coast states like California and Arizona. One critical difference between the group and the Freedom Caucus: It does not vote on issues, and it does not take a unified caucus position when there's a majority opinion on an issue.

"Tuesday Group members don't sit around and say, 'Here's the issue, and is everybody here going to vote no, and if not, you're not a part of our group,'" says former New Hampshire Representative Charlie Bass, a longtime member of the group. The Freedom Caucus, in contrast, decided as a caucus to vote against the House health care proposal in March, denying leadership the support it needed to pass. Bass concedes that in some ways, the Tuesday Group's less unified front—the caucus was split on the health care bill, with at least a handful opposed—diminishes its leverage. Instead of confronting a single voting bloc, party leaders can bargain with individual Tuesday Group members, peeling them off one by one. "I can remember sitting on the [House] floor with my colleagues," says Bass. They would watch the Republican leader tasked with counting votes (known as the "whip") approaching them, "And we'd say to ourselves, with some irony, 'Which one of us is going to cave first?'"

But Bass also says that stance can allow the Tuesday Group to play a more significant role in the process of developing legislation. Under recent House speakers, the group was well represented in leadership meetings. Speaker Paul Ryan's predecessor, John Boehner, each year attended a conference hosted by the Republican Mainstreet Partnership, a group supporting more moderate House and Senate members. These members didn't have to take such a public stand, as they have on health care, because, as Bass puts it, "You're not going to object to someone who's basically doing the kind of things that you would do."

But as Boehner's speakership wound down to its acrimonious end—he was ultimately forced out under pressure from the Freedom Caucus—and Ryan came in promising a more collaborative approach, members of the Tuesday Group and other more pragmatic Republicans have become increasingly marginalized. That came to a head in the health care debate, when Trump and Ryan offered concession after concession to hard-liners, alarming those who had to sell the bill to their centrist or even liberal constituents. And they began speaking up. "The Tuesday Group is tired of providing the votes when these guys in these [safe] Republican plus districts were standing up and yelling 'no,'" says former Representative Tom Davis, a onetime member of the caucus. As Davis points out, it's Tuesday Group members from states like New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois who are vulnerable in the next election.

In the final days leading up to the leader's decision to cancel the scheduled health care vote, the usually low-profile Tuesday Group was suddenly a cable news talking point, a counterbalance to the Freedom Caucus. Its co-chairman and one of its longest serving members, Pennsylvania Representative Charlie Dent, was swarmed by reporters everywhere he went. Even after the bill's collapse, there was talk of trying to revive it by getting the Tuesday Group to meet with the Freedom Caucus to hash out their differences. Collins, the New York congressman, and others in the caucus vociferously opposed that proposal. On March 31, another member, Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger, wrote a New York Times op-ed eviscerating the Freedom Caucus for its intransigence and urging the GOP to pursue policies that are "in the interests of the American people—and not just one group." It's a critique that echoed Trump, who in a series of tweets called out leaders of the Freedom Caucus, by name, for their obstruction. "I think the Tuesday Group right now is emboldened," says Bass, "because they know that both the president and the leadership has had enough of the Freedom Caucus."

Asked Monday if the outcome of the health care debate had given the Tuesday Group more clout within the party, Collins equivocated. "No, I think it's just an acknowledgement that they were chasing votes with the Freedom Caucus and the far right and then ended up losing some votes with those of us who are typically the most reliable votes," he explained. But outside observers say the more moderate wing of the party is indeed flexing more muscle in this Congress. "The Tuesday Group now has...a veto," says one former House aide. "That is new. It was not the case before this that the Tuesday Group...had hung together on key things."