Mark Meadows and his band of conservatives issued a stark threat to House Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday: Get immigration reform right or else.
Meadows has gone down this road before, seeking in 2015 to oust John Boehner, Ryan's predecessor. The pressure from the right worked. Boehner stepped down.
Now Ryan, never a strong favorite of Meadows and the roughly three dozen House members of the Freedom Caucus, faces the same turmoil.
“It is the defining moment for this speaker. If he gets it wrong, it will have consequences for him but it will also have consequences for the rest of the Republican party,” said Meadows, R-N.C., the Freedom Caucus chairman.
Meadows has long been mentioned as a possible successor to Ryan. In September, after a previous round of chatter about the Wisconsin Republican’s job status, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board urged Meadows to “man up” and run against Ryan.
Meadows said there is no direct challenge to Ryan — in part because there is no obvious successor to the one-time vice presidential nominee from Wisconsin.
“I don’t think there’s really any conversations right now that would involve a new Speaker. But there are certainly conversations that would involve new leadership,” said Meadows, a near ubiquitous presence on cable television news shows who has worked to increase the influence of the Freedom Caucus. “We need leadership to actually lead.”
The caucus has been an influential voice in House GOP leadership affairs for years. It helped push Boehner out in 2015 — after Meadows formally sought to have the House declare the speaker position vacant — and played a large role in denying Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the top job.
Now Ryan, who supported the two-year spending deal last week to keep the government open and fund the military, is under fire from the group. Most of its members voted no on the budget plan.
The deal drew their ire because it included additional money for non-defense domestic spending and disaster relief without total offsets for the new funding, fueling outrage from fiscal hawks.
“Just a few years ago, Speaker Ryan was viewed as the individual in our party, in our country, who was focused on fiscal responsibility,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a former Freedom Caucus chairman. “And then you saw what happened last week.”
The always vocal — and media-friendly — Freedom Caucus is particularly worried about how Ryan and House leadership will handle the pending immigration debate. The caucus is backing the conservative Securing America’s Future Act, sponsored by Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
The legislation ends the diversity lottery program, ends family reunification, often called chain migration, and reduces legal immigration by 25 percent. It makes e-Verify mandatory for employers, authorizes construction on the border wall and cracks down on sanctuary cities. It does not include a special path to citizenship for DACA recipients, though it allows the undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors a three-year renewable legal status.
The bill has 92 co-sponsors, including Meadows.
“It’s the only piece of legislation that’s being talked about that is consistent with the mandate of the 2016 election,” Jordan said.
Meadows said President Donald Trump was elected “largely on an immigration issue that defined him differently than every other candidate. This is the defining moment.”
House leadership began to count votes for and against the bill Monday, but the Freedom Caucus wants an aggressive operation to find votes for the legislation.
“Put some oomph behind it,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C.
The Senate is already debating immigration bills, another sore point for Meadows, and Trump has said he supports a bill sponsored by Senate conservatives that includes a 10- to 12-year path to citizenship for DACA recipients.
Ryan supported a 2013 immigration proposal backed by members of both parties that passed the Senate, but never got a vote in the House.
“We need legislation in every policy area that is consistent with what we told ‘em we were going to do and what they elected us to do,” Jordan said. “That did not happen last week, but I certainly hope it happens on immigration. And that’s why we are pushing so hard.”
Ryan donated $5,000 each to the re-election bids of 143 Republican members earlier this month. Seven of the 10 Republicans in the North Carolina delegation received funds, but Meadows was not among them.