At home, rebel Republican lawmakers pay no price for defying Trump

PALATKA, Fla. (Reuters) - At a town hall in his conservative Florida district this week, U.S. Representative Ted Yoho drew applause for defying his own Republican Party leaders to help derail a healthcare plan that was President Donald Trump’s first major legislative initiative.

Diana Castine (C) holds a sign before U.S. Representative Ted Yoho (R-FL) speaks during a town hall meeting in Gainesville, Florida, U.S., April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Phelan Ebenhack

Far from paying a price back home, as Trump has threatened they would, Yoho and some of the other far-right members of the House Freedom Caucus appear to have support for standing their ground, based on their reception at several town halls during a two-week congressional recess.

A handful of House Freedom Caucus lawmakers were facing constituents for the first time since last month’s defeat of Trump’s effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, which was also rejected by some Republican moderates.

Many supporters made clear they expect them to work with Trump to make good on campaign promises to reform the nation’s health care system.

“I want it done,” said Bob White, 74, after questioning Yoho on the issue during a town hall on Tuesday night in rural Putnam County, Florida. “Wield that big stick.”

The rebellious faction of conservatives in the House of Representatives was instrumental in toppling a plan supported by Trump to rewrite Obamacare, President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law. Trump has singled out the group for blame.

Many caucus members refused to back the Republican leadership’s bill because they considered parts too similar to Obamacare and said it would not have done enough to reduce insurance premiums. At town hall meetings, constituents pressed them to keep working to address problems such as high healthcare costs.

The reception for Yoho and other caucus members at home could shape their approach to the Republican president and leadership controlling both chambers of Congress, said Matthew Green, an associate professor of politics at Catholic University of America, who studies congressional parties and leaders.

“The Freedom Caucus members are either going to become more recalcitrant because they will be hearing from their constituents ‘good job,’” he said. “Or if they don’t hear that, they might be more willing to compromise.”

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Michigan Representative Justin Amash landed in the crosshairs of the feud when a White House adviser called on Twitter for Trump supporters to defeat him in a primary.

But in the farming and manufacturing area he represents in the southwestern state, home to cereal maker Kellogg Co, the four-term congressman heard cheers in a high school auditorium in Battle Creek, Michigan on Tuesday night, where he held a town hall with about 100 people attending.

“If I had to choose between Justin and Trump, I’d go with Justin for sure,” said construction worker Eric Smith, 34, who voted for both, but so far has found Trump lacking conservative principles. “At this point, I’d give Donald Trump a D.”

Retiree Cliff Ward, 72, told Amash that he was pleased with his role in the blocking the legislation, which polls showed to be unpopular and expected to end health coverage for millions.

“Now we need you to work with Trump and the other Republicans to get this done,” he added.


Living in Georgetown, Florida, a community so remote that cell phone service is a chief concern, Trump voter Melvin Shebester knew little about the House Freedom Caucus.

The faction of small-government conservatives came together in 2015 and since then have been a thorn in the side of more mainstream Republican leadership in the House, including an attempt to push out former Republican House Speaker John Boehner.

The 84-year-old Shebester was impressed that his congressman, Yoho, stood up to the president on a bill that he saw as rushed.

“It takes a lot of guts to stand up against your party,” said Shebester, attending Yoho’s town hall on Tuesday night at a government center in Palatka, Florida with his son and grandson.

“We can’t go up there and tell Trump he’s wrong,” added his son, Steven Shebester, 56, who lives nearby.

Many Republicans have avoided public town halls, often open to anyone interested, since the meetings became a staging ground for liberal protests earlier this year.

But Yoho, a veterinarian first elected in 2012, has held several. His event in Gainesville, a college town, on Monday was crowded by left-leaning activists who at times shouted him down.

On Tuesday night in Palatka, a small town in Yoho’s sprawling district in north central Florida lined with oaks and Spanish moss, he took questions from about 100 constituents in a politically mixed crowd.

He told reporters his office received some 3,500 calls in the days leading up to the healthcare plan showdown, with only about 215 in support. And a phone survey of constituents found the Republican plan was as unpopular as Obamacare itself.

He said constituents gave him a clear message: “Stay the course.”

(This version of the story has been refiled to fix dropped letter in seventh paragraph)

Additional reporting by Steve Friess in Michigan and Lisa Maria Garza in Texas; Editing by Cynthia Osterman