Freedom Caucus leader Meadows says farm bill not dead

Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, who led House conservatives’ successful effort Friday to nix the GOP-controlled chamber’s farm bill, thinks detractors will eventually come around to supporting the measure.

“I think we’ll reconsider this bill,” the North Carolina Republican and leader of the House Freedom Caucus said minutes after the bill failed 213-198 on the House floor.

Members of the influential roughly 35-member caucus voted against the bill as leverage to try to force House Speaker Paul Ryan to hold a vote on a hard line immigration bill that they support.

“I think if we get a vote on immigration we reconsider this bill,” Meadows told reporters. “We’ll vote for it, yeah.”

GOP leaders thought they had found a way by Friday morning to make the party's warring conservative and moderate wings happy on an issue that has bedeviled them for years.

Conservatives would get a vote by late June on an immigration bill that parrots many of President Trump's hard-right immigration views, including reductions on legal immigration and opening the door to his proposed wall with Mexico. And centrists would have a chance to craft a more moderate alternative with the White House and Democrats and get a vote on that.

But it all blew up as conservatives decided they didn't like that offer and rebelled. By lunchtime Friday, many were among the 30 Republicans who joined Democrats and scuttled the sweeping farm and food bill, a setback for Ryan, R-Wis., and other GOP House leaders.

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., left, speaks during a news conference after the House voted to approve the Republican tax bill, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., left, speaks during a news conference after the House voted to approve the Republican tax bill, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Meadows described his conversation with Ryan as "professional,” saying, “He understands we all got different districts.”

He also acknowledged pressure to back the farm bill after Trump tweeted his support.

“There’s always pressure when the president weighs in on one side or the other,” Meadows said.

Still, Meadows, who represents an agricultural district, suggested that delaying the passage of a new bill, which included work requirements for Americans on food-assistance programs, was not going to hurt farmers.

“Honestly, having a farm bill is critical, [but] you know an extension of the current farm bill is probably just as good for my farmers as this one," he said.

“Tomorrow, the House will vote on a strong Farm Bill, which includes work requirements. We must support our Nation’s great farmers!,” Trump tweeted.

The conservatives essentially took the agriculture bill hostage, saying they were unwilling to let the farm measure pass unless they first got assurances that when the House addresses immigration in coming weeks, leaders would not help an overly permissive version pass.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., a leader of the moderates, said his group would try to write a bill that would let young "Dreamer" immigrants in the U.S. illegally stay permanently -- a position anathema to conservatives -- and toughen border security.

A moderate immigration package "disavows what the last election was about and what the majority of the American people want, and the people in this body know it," said Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Scott Perry, one of the many Freedom Caucus members who opposed the bill. "It's all about timing unfortunately and leverage, and the farm bill was just a casualty."

Denham and his allies were also unwilling to back down. He told reporters that the conservatives "broke that agreement," and his group would pursue bipartisan legislation.

"I'm disappointed in some colleagues who asked for a concession, got the concession and then took down a bill anyway," Denham said in a slap at the Freedom Caucus. He also said the concession was a promised vote on the conservative immigration bill by June, though conservatives said they never agreed to that.

Such internal bickering is the opposite of what the GOP needs as the party struggles to fend off Democratic efforts to capture control of the House in November.

Republican leaders and strategists think their winning formula is to focus on an economy that has been gaining strength and tax cuts the GOP says is putting more money in people's wallets. And immigration is a distraction from that message.

On one side are conservatives from Republican strongholds, where many voters consider helping immigrants stay in the U.S. to be amnesty. On the other are GOP moderates, often representing districts with many constituents who are Hispanic, moderate suburbanites or are tied to the agriculture industry, which relies heavily on migrant workers.

Trump's willingness to sign immigration legislation also remains in question after a year that has seen his stance on the issue veer unpredictably.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.