Libertarian wing of GOP gains strength in Congress

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A few times each month, a couple dozen House Republican lawmakers gather in a meeting room in a building adjacent to Capitol to discuss ideas and legislative proposals that focus on limited government, reducing the debt and maintaining individual rights.

The group considers itself conservative with a libertarian emphasis. They call themselves the Liberty Caucus and believe that in order for the GOP to win more elections in the future, the party must begin embracing their libertarian-minded philosophy because voters are beginning to demand it, particularly in the wake of government data collection revelations that some believe infringe on privacy rights.

"I think you are seeing a movement in the Republican Party where it is becoming more liberty minded," Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a member of the Liberty Caucus, told the Washington Examiner.

"Issues like [government data collection by the National Security Administration] have really enlightened Republicans to the dangers of the lack of strong congressional oversight of these organizations, so I think we need to get back to the basic doctrine of the constitution. Our Founding Fathers had a fear of strong central government and too much power being given to one person. That is the premise of what the constitution was about."

Labrador said younger Republicans especially are beginning to embrace this libertarian-minded view point.

"We are the future of the Republican Party," Labrador, who was elected to Congress in 2010, said of the Liberty Caucus.

The philosophy of the caucus dovetails with the GOP's conservative wing on some issues, such as debt reduction, reining in government spending and opposition to the new health care law. But it differs on others, in particular on national security. While many Liberty Caucus members are opposed to the government surveillance program that has permitted officials to gather huge amounts of private phone and internet data in an effort to thwart terrorism, most mainstream GOP lawmakers have shown far less opposition and have defended it as necessary for preserving national security.

Despite some philosophical similarities, neither mainstream Republicans nor their leadership are embracing the Liberty Caucus and in many cases are standing in the way of their ideas, refusing to take up their legislation and stripping members of important committee assignments for bucking the leadership on key votes.

It's a clash that threatens to further divide the GOP, which has already been fractured by the Tea Party movement. Many of the Liberty Caucus members also consider themselves Tea Party members.

The fight will play out in the 2014 elections, with outside groups that back the Liberty Caucus philosophy supporting a long list of like-minded GOP candidates who would expand the group's ranks in Congress and make it a more powerful voting bloc in both the House and Senate.

"We see our mission in large part as helping to elect more members who are likely to join the Liberty Caucus," Dean Clancy, vice president for public policy at FreedomWorks, an conservative and libertarian organization that grew out of the Tea Party movement, told the Examiner.

The Liberty Caucus isn't new, but it's been revived from near death. It was started last decade by former representative and GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, a staunch libertarian. Back then, the group had about 30 members, but it faded away after Paul left Congress and many of the participants either retired or failed to win re-election.

The group came back to life slowly beginning two years ago under Rep. Justin Amash, R-M.I., who identifies himself as a libertarian and is also considered a Tea Party conservative. Like many other members of the Liberty Caucus, Amash first won his seat in the 2010 election that delivered to Republicans dozens of Tea Party-inspired lawmakers who helped the party retake the majority but have also become a thorn in the side of mainstream GOP politics.

According to Liberty Caucus members, the group has grown in size from just a handful of members to about two dozen who have shown up at recent meetings.

A senate version of the Liberty Caucus is run by Paul's son, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. About once a month the two groups hold a joint meeting.

The latest incarnation of the House Liberty Caucus began meeting in part out of dissatisfaction with the size and scope of the House GOP's main conservative group, the Republican Study Committee, which has grown in size in recent years and now includes about 170 of the party's 233-member House conference.

Some conservatives believe the growth of the group has watered down its conservatism.

"It's been diluted," said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a member of the Liberty Caucus who was elected in 2012. "I stopped going to the RSC and I'm not going to pay my dues anymore. That's sort of a New Year's resolution."

Labrador said he'll keep paying the RSC's $5,000 annual membership fees and plans to keep attending the meetings. But he said he considers himself a conservative with "libertarian leanings," and he believes the Liberty Caucus ideas better represent where the GOP is headed than the RSC.

"What we want to do is network together to really show Americans where the conservative movement can go," Labrador said.

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Susan Ferrechio

Chief Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner