October 15, 2015 / 9:54 PM / 4 years ago

Spotlight shines, stage right, on U.S. House Freedom Caucus

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - They are mostly wealthier than their fellow Republican lawmakers, overwhelmingly white, middle-aged and male, and have minimal legislative experience despite often having been high achievers in their careers before Washington.

The members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus represent a small slice of America, but they have attained outsized influence as central players in a congressional leadership vacuum that has consumed the Republican Party.

The group, sometimes known as the “hell no caucus” for its refusal to compromise, does not disclose its membership roster but appears to number about three dozen, according to a Reuters tally, media reports and counts by political research firms. Reuters has independently confirmed 33 of the members.

Their defining creed: to ensure that Republican leaders carry out what they say is a conservative mandate from voters even if that disrupts normal congressional business.

Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, a former wrestling coach who chairs the bare-knuckled caucus, told Reuters his secretive group is sometimes unfairly blamed by leaders who are “not doing what voters sent them here to do.”

“Our leadership has consistently failed to make the argument for conservative principles and ceded the field” to President Barack Obama on key issues, Jordan wrote in an emailed response to criticism that the group was actually hurting Republicans.

(Map showing Freedom Caucus districts: reut.rs/1OFmWOJ)

Jordan’s blunt assertion was true to form for the group, which formed in January as the latest - and most potent - offshoot of the Tea Party movement.

The caucus was seen as central to House Speaker John Boehner’s decision last month to step down, and to the sudden withdrawal last week by No. 2 House Republican Kevin McCarthy from the race to replace him. It is now a key variable in whether Paul Ryan, a former Republican vice presidential nominee, will make a bid for the speaker’s job.

Some Republicans say the group is effectively killing their party’s ability to run the House, and damaging Republican electoral prospects next year with counter-productive tactics that end up helping the Democrats.

“The Freedom Caucus has shattered the long-standing precedent that the majority party selects the speaker and decides which bills will be voted on,” said California Republican Tom McClintock, who quit the caucus last month.

The effect may well be “to move the political center of gravity in the House dramatically to the left,” he told Reuters. “That could be very damaging for Republican prospects in the next election.”

Caucus members have asked speaker candidates whether they would commit to impeach Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen and ensure that House bills do not contain funding for the women’s health organization Planned Parenthood, Obamacare, the Iran nuclear deal or Obama’s immigration reforms.

They also have asked candidates to link any increase in the U.S. debt ceiling to reforms in “entitlement” programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, setting the stage for a possible showdown with Obama in the coming weeks.

WEALTHY, RURAL, MALE

Though small in number, the caucus punches above its weight by controlling enough votes to make the difference between Republicans carrying a majority, or not, in the House.

There are 247 members of the House Republican majority. Subtract some three dozen Freedom Caucus members and Republicans are short of the 218 votes needed to pass legislation in the 435-member chamber — or to elect a speaker.

Nearly all of the members are middle-aged white men and most come from rural districts, though some are from the suburbs and “exurbs” of cities such as Atlanta, Houston and Phoenix. None come from New England or the West Coast.

As a Midwesterner, Jordan stands out in the caucus. Of the roughly three dozen members, 80 percent are Southerners or Westerners, with South Carolina, Florida and Arizona heavily represented.

Four out of every five of them were first elected in 2008 or more recently. So most have never served with any president other than Obama, a Democrat with whom they are constantly at odds.

Only one of the known caucus members is a woman: Wyoming’s Cynthia Lummis, a 61-year-old multi-millionaire rancher who has been involved in state and national politics since 1979.

The group’s members on average are wealthier than their congressional colleagues, according to 2013 estimates compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Caucus members had an average 2013 net worth of more than $5 million each, though that figure was skewed by just six members who have amassed fortunes ranging from $14 million to $36 million, according to the Center. A few had negative net worth.

The average net worth of members of Congress is about $1 million, including the House and Senate, the Center reported.

More than a dozen caucus members are career politicians; 10 are lawyers; six made careers in real estate; six in business; and six in medicine. The group includes three former military pilots, an economics professor, a farmer, a judge, a pastor and a veterinarian. Three are Latinos.

Brookings Institution senior fellow Sarah Binder said the caucus members’ relative inexperience provided one clue to their frustration at being hemmed in by traditional House voting rules that favor higher-ranking lawmakers.

“They do seem to be quite a frustrated group of lawmakers, who found themselves with their hands around the neck of the next speaker,” she said.

Additional reporting by Megan Cassella, Richard Cowan, David Lawder and Andy Sullivan; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Stuart Grudgings

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