WASHINGTON – “We’re on the same page with our president-elect,” Paul Ryan said this week.
If he believes that, the young House speaker may be in need of a pair of Foster Grants.
On Wednesday afternoon, House Republicans from the hard-line Freedom Caucus assembled for the first time since the election for the monthly “Conversations with Conservatives.” In one hour, they served up enough intra-GOP disputes to last four years.
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They differed with President-elect Donald Trump on a massive infrastructure bill that isn’t funded by cuts elsewhere in the government.
They split with Senate Republicans, and potentially with Trump, on whether to repeal Obamacare in its entirety.
They warned Trump, and Ryan, that they would rebel against any attempt to increase spending before Trump takes office.
They split with the Senate GOP, and among themselves, on whether Republicans should use the “nuclear option” to abolish the filibuster.
They took positions at odds with Trump on entitlement programs and split with fellow House Republicans on returning lawmakers’ ability to fund pet projects through earmarks.
And, during their hour-long Q&A with reporters in a House hearing room, they signaled a potential donnybrook with Trump over executive power.
Carved on the moderator’s lectern was an eagle and the “E Pluribus Unum” seal. If Wednesday was any indication, the motto may become “E Pluribus Chaos.”
The Atlantic’s Russell Berman asked whether House conservatives viewed the election as a mandate for Trump or for congressional Republicans.
“I haven’t figured that out yet,” Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho said, to laughter.
Labrador described three Republican factions: Ryan’s “Wall Street Journal” wing, Trump’s populist wing and, as potential kingmakers, the conservative ideologues. “Donald Trump didn’t get the majority of the American vote. He got the majority of the electors,” Labrador said. “So he has a mandate where the American people are saying, ‘Let’s move a little bit in that direction.’”
Quite an endorsement.
For eight years, they were unified in opposition to President Obama. They were lockstep in opposition to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. But while it’s relatively easy to oppose, they’re discovering it’s rather more difficult to govern. Intraparty fratricide looms.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, defeated in a primary, lamented that there’s no Republican alternative to Obamacare to be enacted. “I wish our current [or] previous leadership would have had some debate in the committees and moved forward on some proposals,” he said.
Labrador had more questions than answers and at one point he grew exasperated. “You guys are asking all these questions,” he protested. “You’re not even giving [Trump] an opportunity to start with his transition to get a government in place.”
Labrador must have forgotten that he was the one who convened the meeting.
Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas had a solution to intraparty confusion: He would answer each question with criticism of Clinton. Asked about the filibuster, Gohmert replied by alleging that Clinton would have abolished “at least four of the original 10 Bill of Rights.”
But Clinton is gone. The government belongs to Republicans, as Fox News’ Chad Pergram gently reminded them. If they repeal Obamacare, “there’s no guarantee that something comes up” to replace it, he said. “Then you run the risk of tossing 20 or 30 million people off health care and they blame your side.”
Rep. Steve King of Iowa wasn’t worried. People would still be “way better off” if nothing were passed to replace Obamacare, he said.
Even during the transition, when party unity is typically high, the lawmakers showed little deference to Trump beyond pro forma pledges to work together. Otherwise, they were placing markers for the president-elect about where they stood.
On infrastructure spending: “If Trump doesn’t find a way to pay for it, then at least a majority if not all of us will vote against it,” Labrador said. “Fiscal conservatives in the House will not support anything that’s not paid for.”
On spending and debt-limit increases: “I think that’s a very dangerous thing, especially for our conservative base,” said Rep. Tom Massie of Kentucky.
On budget cutting: “Everything has to be on the table,” said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. Trump has declared Social Security off-limits.
On suspicion that Ryan will “clean the barn” for Trump by pushing through new spending before Trump takes office: Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona warned Ryan not to “come back” from his conversations with Trump “with a whole bunch of garbage that we’re not going to like.”
Maybe they are on the same page – but in different hymnals.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.