The House Freedom Caucus has a secret it wants to share with Democrats.
"If the Democrats were to file a motion to vacate the chair and were to vote for that motion unanimously, there probably are 218 votes for it to succeed," one member of the House Freedom Caucus told CQ Roll Call Tuesday night, as he exited an meeting in the basement of Tortilla Coast. If that's true, Democrats could certainly use a vote to remove Speaker John A. Boehner as leverage in any number of upcoming battles: the Export-Import Bank, a highway bill, all sorts of spending measures. But absent any real talk from Democrats, the official response from Boehner's communications director, Kevin Smith, was simply to dismiss CQ Roll Call's reporter.
"Matt Fuller is a prop for Freedom Caucus propaganda," Smith wrote via email.
While the HFC member in question wouldn't say whether a vote to take Boehner's gavel was part of the discussion Tuesday — and other members said it was not — it's clear the decision to strip North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows of his subcommittee chairmanship has stirred the already excitable Freedom Caucus into a new frenzy.
The HFC looks ready for war, as does GOP leadership and more moderate Republicans who are sick and tired of conservatives voting against the team — and that could signal more retaliation to come from both sides.
Rep. Jim Jordan, the HFC chairman, and Raúl R. Labrador, one of the founding members of the secretive conservative group, had plenty to say to CQ Roll Call Wednesday about leadership's recent moves against members who voted against the rule for Trade Promotion Authority.
"The reason this is happening is pretty clear," Labrador said of Meadows' demotion and the dismissal of other HFC members from the whip team. "The leadership is afraid."
Labrador said GOP leaders sense their influence slipping, as 34 Republicans defied Boehner and others on the TPA rule. "And they know that that 34 is really not 34," Labrador said. "They know that that number is really much larger."
That may be true, with HFC membership now up to around 40 — according to Jordan's best estimate, because he said he didn't have the classified roster in front of him.
There's been some discrepancy in reports on the size of the caucus — The Daily Caller put its total at 70. The Hill says it's between 50 and 60 — but that's due in part to group's own obsessive secrecy about its rules and membership. And, for the record, it takes a four-fifths majority to reach an official position, according to members.
Labrador notes that, while at least 25 of the 34 "no" votes on the rule were from members of the conservative caucus, it's not just conservatives upset about TPA, or the rule for the legislation or the resulting "shenanigans," to use Labrador's word for leadership's crackdown.
"They're afraid," Labrador said. "They want to break our backs, because they're afraid that that number is just going to continue to grow."
If leaders are afraid, they're not exactly backing down. On Wednesday, Boehner said he "absolutely" supported Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz removing Meadows, and affirmed that, "when it comes to procedural votes in the House, the majority has to stick together."
That reasoning doesn't sit well with HFC members. "This was a substantive rule. This wasn't your typical rule," Labrador said, calling Boehner's claim it was simply a procedural vote "B.S."
Jordan and Labrador both laid out a case that the rule made major self-executing policy changes — Jordan, in his fifth term, called it "the most convoluted rule I've ever seen" — and therefore, he viewed it more like a vote on a bill than procedure.
Some Republicans may be comforted that the HFC has a reason why it voted against the rule. It indicates the Freedom Caucus isn't really prone to just voting against procedural motions in quixotic or retributive fashion.
"It's about principles," Labrador said. "It's not about tit-for-tat."
The Idaho Republican — who unsuccessfully ran for majority leader almost exactly a year ago and wouldn't rule out another run in the future — said many in the GOP conference think differently than conservatives. "They think that being a member of Congress is just so dang cool, and that there's nothing greater than this," Labrador said.
Conservatives are in Washington to stand on principle, he said, not to get titles like vice chairman. That, he said, is what really scares leadership and others — "that they can't control you."
Jordan, who sat silently while listening to Labrador, was less critical of leadership and other Republicans in the conference, focusing instead on what he believes the Freedom Caucus is about: doing what you said you would do.
"That's much more important than if you're a subcommittee chairman, or if you're on a certain committee," Jordan said.
Jordan is a subcommittee chairman on Oversight and Government Reform — as Meadows was before he lost his gavel — and, like Meadows, Jordan voted against the TPA rule. Also, like Meadows, he hasn't contributed a dime to the National Republican Congressional Committee this year. (Labrador said it was difficult to give to the NRCC when a group led by Boehner's former chief of staff was running ads against conservatives. "And then to have the speaker and his cronies to come to you and say you need to give money to the NRCC.")
So why Meadows and not Jordan?
"Good question," Jordan said.
Neither Labrador nor Jordan thought Chaffetz acted on his own. Meadows doesn't think that either. And even though Chaffetz was the executioner, Meadows isn't holding much of a grudge. (When he entered Tortilla Coast Tuesday night for the HFC meeting, he spotted Chaffetz dining separately with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and went right over to say "Hi.")
CQ Roll Call asked Chaffetz Wednesday why Meadows was punished but not Jordan, and the Utah Republican went back to his talking points. "I said it was a variety of factors," Chaffetz said.
Labrador offered his own theory.
"Mark Meadows is not a three-time national wrestling champion," said Labrador, who was the one laughing hardest at his own joke.
(For the record, the wiry Jordan won the NCAA Division I wrestling championship twice, not three times.)
Emma Dumain and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.
Conservatives Fume Over Leadership’s Crackdown on Rebels See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.