Freedom Caucus' Raul Labrador Faces New Challenges In Trump Era
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
President Trump has clashed with members of the House Freedom Caucus during his first few months in office. He blamed them for derailing the party's health care bill, and he even threatened to help unseat their co-founder, Raul Labrador. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis went to Idaho and spent time with Labrador and sent this report.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Here at Eagle High School, it's the most exciting time of the year.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Over loudspeaker) Buy your permit (ph) with us because you can't sign in at the door.
DAVIS: It's prom season at this suburban Boise high school. And today's lesson in Mr. Clifford's American government senior class is courtesy of their Congressman, Raul Labrador. It goes like this.
RAUL LABRADOR: The relationships that really matter in life, whether you're a teacher, whether you're a professional, whether you're a politician are those people that are with you before you become somebody.
DAVIS: Never forget the people who loved you when you were nobody. It's advice Labrador's living by, especially now that he's a somebody who isn't always the most popular guy at the party. President Trump threatened him on Twitter with a primary challenge.
And Labrador has been cast as a villain in virtually every tale of Republicans' failure to pass their agenda on Capitol Hill. But Idahoans like Benjamin Chafetz have a decidedly different take on the Freedom Caucus.
BENJAMIN CHAFETZ: I think they're fantastic. I love that they defied Trump. I'm sorry, he is not a dictator.
DAVIS: Chafetz met Labrador at the Arid Club, a social group for local business leaders. He doesn't think the president's bullying tactics will work on the Freedom Caucus and he doesn't want them to.
CHAFETZ: I'm sure he's going to try but we have wonderful people that have a spine that are going to fight that.
DAVIS: Here, like at most public events, Labrador reminds people he was not an initial Trump supporter.
LABRADOR: (Over loudspeaker) He wasn't my first choice. He wasn't my second choice. He wasn't even my 15th choice.
DAVIS: But when Labrador got on the Trump train, he stuck to it. Unlike most top Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, Labrador stood by Trump on the campaign trail after the infamous "Access Hollywood" tapes leaked. But after Election Day, Labrador says this happened.
LABRADOR: (Over loudspeaker) Our leadership said, well, the Freedom Caucus - or in other words, people like Raul, like Raul Labrador - they're don't needed anymore.
DAVIS: But leadership did need conservatives to pass the health care bill and their opposition doomed it. Labrador tells me the Freedom Caucus wasn't trying to undermine Trump's presidency. He says they're trying to protect it.
LABRADOR: What I try to remind my Republican colleagues who make that argument is that the Democrats had a lot of unity in 2008. And what did that do for them? They lost the House, the Senate, now the presidency, governorships, state legislatures. So if you're united in doing something, that's really stupid. It's not really that good for the party.
DAVIS: He says there's no hard feelings between the Freedom Caucus and the president. Conservatives are still working with him to try and revive the health care bill. He is not as forgiving towards House leadership.
LABRADOR: If what our leadership takes from this experience is that you have to try to figure out how to quash the Freedom Caucus, it's not going to be a very successful time for that.
DAVIS: There's no evidence there's any political price to pay back home. Labrador won reelection with nearly 70 percent of the vote last November. He says his constituents always know where he stands and they like that, even if they don't agree with it.
LABRADOR: When I'm taking a tough stance it's because of a principle that I have already articulated to the district.
DAVIS: Although that wasn't apparent at a town hall meeting this week, where he mainly heard from the 30 percent who didn't vote for him, like Rachel Seluga, who was waving a sign that said this...
RACHEL SELUGA: I am a constituent. And I am pissed.
DAVIS: But the funny thing about the health care bill is that derailing it pleased both conservatives and liberals like Seluga.
SELUGA: The only good thing that I think that Raul Labrador has done is down to vote down Paul Ryan's version of the Affordable Care Act.
DAVIS: Labrador is not interested in changing his mind but he is thinking about changing his job. He's considering a run for governor next year. And while he mulls that decision, Labrador's taking his own advice. He's spending time over the spring recess with the people who knew him when he was a nobody like Var Reeve. Reeve runs a company that builds fire trucks. They've known each other since their college days.
VAR REEVE: He's just a super likable guy. Everybody knew him. Everybody liked him.
DAVIS: He gave Labrador a tour of the plant and they took him out for a spin. And they let him do this.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE TRUCK SIREN)
LABRADOR: (Laughter) Every child's dream, right? This is awesome.
DAVIS: Here's another life lesson. There's always time to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, like a joy ride in a fire truck, whether you're a nobody or a somebody. Susan Davis, NPR News, Boise.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAZERBEAK'S "MIGHTY JUNGLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.