Mark Meadows wanted money for a U.S.-Mexico border wall so badly he defied Senate Republicans, his own House Republican leadership and even President Donald Trump. And as the government began a partial shutdown Saturday, he was triumphantly getting his way.
As the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Meadows rallied House Republicans and the president to make a stand on wall funding and risk the shutdown, rather than pushing the issue into early next year when Democrats will control the House. He convinced Trump that the president’s 2020 electoral chances were on the line.
“You can remember the Alamo in San Antonio. It’s not because they won there, it’s because they fought there,” Meadows said. “If we’re willing to fight, I think a lot of people support the president and his willingness to fight. I support him in that.“
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Saturday that there would be no vote in the Senate until there is an agreement between Trump and Democratic leaders.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
In mid-afternoon, he announced the Senate would not return for a regular session until late afternoon on Dec. 27, virtually assuring a lengthy shutdown.
He said “productive discussions are continuing,” and when a solution is reached “acceptable to all parties...we will take it up here on the Senate floor.”
The Senate, though controlled by Republicans, needs 60 votes to limit debate on a spending measure, meaning some Democrats will have to agree to a bill to fund the government. Republicans control 51 of the 100 seats.
Earlier in the week, Trump signaled to the Senate he’d be willing to sign a funding bill without wall funding. The Senate passed it by a voice vote — a move that angered House Republicans and sparked outrage in the conservative media.
“How could the Senate have (consented to) something this important and just folded on a fight?” Meadows said. “That was as much of a motivating factor.”
Meadows went to work.
The 59-year-old congressman, in frequent contact with Trump, organized a series of speeches on the House floor by fellow Freedom Caucus members Wednesday, urging Trump to fight.
Thursday, Meadows was one of four House Republicans to visit the White House when Trump changed course and decided to not accept a government funding measure without wall funding.
Friday, Meadows was a big player in negotiations with White House officials — including Vice President Mike Pence, incoming Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and senior adviser Jared Kushner — to work out a compromise. This put him the middle of one more big fight.
“Two hundred seventeen people agreed that we should fight last night,” Meadows said, reflecting the yes votes in the House for the wall. “When that happens, I’m no longer the voice.”
No compromise emerged, and nine Cabinet agencies and several smaller departments shut down after midnight Saturday.
Meadows attended a White House lunch Saturday with Trump and congressional Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina. Pence returned to the Capitol for a meeting with Schumer, but as the vice president left McConnell announced the Senate’s break until after Christmas.
“We’re still talking,” Pence said.
The affable Meadows is usually up for a legislative fight. He helped depose one Republican House Speaker, John Boehner, and scuttle the hopes of his potential successor, Kevin McCarthy.
His vigorous support for Trump and fierce criticism of investigations into the president, usually on Fox News, have earned him the president’s ear.
He said he’s motivated by his constituents in his western North Carolina district, where agriculture is a top industry.
“In order to get something that works for my ag guys, I’ve got to make sure we have a secure border,” he said. “The problem is, they’re getting scooped up in all of this because we don’t secure our border so people think that someone working on an apple farm is coming here illegally and a lot of these people have been here for 20, 30 years. It becomes a complex mess if we don’t secure our border.”
Rather than adopt Trump’s public disdain for the media, Meadows is friendly with reporters, many of whom he knows by name. He delights in joking with them and speaks frequently to large groups of them, often explaining the ins-and-outs of various policy fights.
It is a source of some of his influence, especially TV appearances welcomed by a president who is a voracious consumer of cable news.
Meadows’ personality, especially when compared to the pugnacious style of his close friend and ally, former college wrestler Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, has made him friends in Congress even among those he disagrees with. But some lament his inability to seal the deals that interest him.
Indeed, whatever lawmakers agree to in order to avert a shutdown, it won’t be the bill Meadows championed. Outgoing Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona declared on Friday the House bill “has no path” in the Senate. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, another retiring lawmaker, called the House bill a product of partisan showmanship.
“A lot of colleagues believe that Mark wants to be a bridge builder, that it’s in his personality somewhere. But that when the time comes, he represses that in order to continue with his hardline narrative that this group has established,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a moderate Florida Republican who lost his re-election bid last month.
Curbelo worked with Meadows and the Freedom Caucus for six weeks last spring on an immigration compromise. Meadows walked away from the deal, Curbelo said.
“They’re focused on the goals and objectives of a very small number of members. And that’s at the expense of all the other members,” Curbelo said. “At the end of the day I think their base politics is more important to them than the art of the possible, which is what these institutions call for. It’s not what I want or what you want, it’s what can we figure out.”
The defeat of Curbelo and the net loss of 40 Republican seats means, for the first time since arriving in Washington in 2015, Meadows will be in the minority. His caucus, able to squeeze the GOP majority for conservative wins, will lose that clout when Democrat Nancy Pelosi regains the speaker’s gavel Jan. 3.
Since the Republicans’ lost control of the House in the midterm elections, Meadows has faced a reprimand and fine from the House Ethics Committee for his handling of sexual harassment allegations by his former chief of staff and stories that he earned an associates’ degree from the University of South Florida, not a bachelors as it said on his official House bio.
Despite the heavy losses and personal setbacks, Meadows insisted that Trump’s agenda — and the one Meadows ran on — is still worth fighting for.
“I don’t know that you can say because we lose in a midterm that they rejected the message,” Meadows said. “Many of the people that lost in the midterm are not necessarily strong on the border.“
Meadows has sent strong signals he’s not about to change the way he does congressional business. That was clear as he rallied the Freedom Caucus on the border wall.
“The rumors of my death have been headlines for the last six years,” he said. “What you do is what any good strategic thinker would do, figure out other ways to create leverage. I’ve already been working on that.”
He was determined to use his leverage as head of a caucus with about 40 members one more time while in the majority, especially with a flood of callers urging them to fight for the wall — Trump’s signature campaign promise, which he always added would be paid for by Mexico, not American taxpayers.
“There were people on the phone with the president, there were people that told him, probably, at the farm bill signing: ‘Mr. President, this is really it. This is setting you up to succeed or fail for 2020,’” said Rep. Ted Budd, R-North Carolina and a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Democrats in the Senate, whose support is needed to pass the funding measure, focused their blame on Meadows and Jordan.
“I’d say to my less frenzied friends in the House: Go ask Mr. Jordan and ask Mr. Meadows, ‘What is your plan?’” asked Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York. “’What is your end game?’”