Policy

Norquist Has Leadership's Back Against Heritage, Club for Growth

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A House GOP leadership team whose best-laid plans have been continually torpedoed by Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth has a familiar ally as it tries to avert a government shutdown: Grover Norquist.

It's not hard to find frustration with Heritage Action and the Club for Growth among senior Republicans, who believe the groups' demand that they include Obamacare defunding language on any spending bill keeping the government open will ultimately empower Democrats in a series of fall battles over spending. They believe it's part of a pattern of pushing untenable demands that have no chance of becoming law.

“Heritage Action and Club for Growth are slowly becoming irrelevant Neanderthals,” one senior GOP aide said.

“Heritage is working harder to elect Democrats than the DCCC,” another senior GOP aide said, referring to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “And those efforts to defeat Republicans are marginalizing them and destroying the reputation of the institution built by Ed Feulner and once revered by all conservative members.”

A band of conservatives, with Heritage Action and Club for Growth cheering them on, forced leadership Wednesday to delay consideration of the continuing resolution until next week. The strategy from House leadership would give Republicans a chance to tell their constituents they voted to defund Obamacare and blame the Senate for saving it. But it's a far cry from the shutdown showdown the defund die-hards are demanding.

Heritage Action and Club for Growth call the tactic a “legislative gimmick” and a “

” and a “bad joke.”

But Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, likes it.

“The strategy on this one is to start by recognizing that you have to play offense and defense,” he told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday. “While we push for Obamacare, we can’t lose on the sequester.”

The CR strategy House Republicans are advancing would lock in the 2013 sequester spending level for three months, though it would not adopt the 2014 sequester levels. Rank-and-file members would be able to say they voted to defund Obamacare, but in the end, the health care law would emerge unscathed.

Norquist said the strategy reflected the facts of the situation: Democrats control the Senate and the White House.

“We have a Democratic president, with a veto, who’s just as committed to his wrong-headed vision as we are to our correct vision,” Norquist said.

“Holding the sequester numbers over time crushes the other team. Neither team can pin the other team, but you can make some progress,” he said.

Progress, to Norquist, is holding the line on spending while slowly delaying and repealing pieces of Obamacare.

“The narrative is already there that the president can and will cheerily delay these things,” Norquist said. “So he could agree to delay other pieces of Obamacare and with a straight eye say, ‘I’m not giving up on this, I’m not giving up on the crown jewel of my administration.’”

Norquist added, “Every time you delay these things, you weaken them.”

That’s the position of Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. And it’s probably no coincidence Americans for Tax Reform is siding with them: On nearly every major budget fight in the past two years, Norquist has had leadership's back against Heritage Action and the Club for Growth.

Norquist backed Boehner on the fiscal cliff, when he said he would not count a vote in favor of the fiscal cliff deal as a violation of Americans for Tax Reform’s no-tax-hike pledge. He earlier backed Boehner's doomed "plan B" fiscal-cliff plan, which fell apart in part after Heritage Action and the Club for Growth ripped it. And Norquist backed Boehner and the 2011 Budget Control Act and its pairing of $2 trillion in spending cuts with a debt ceiling increase while Heritage Action and the Club for Growth strongly opposed it.

Critics of Heritage Action and the Club for Growth's all-or-nothing approach have repeatedly pointed to the political reality that their mini-revolts are forcing Boehner to get Democratic votes to keep the government open. And if Boehner needs Democratic votes, they gain leverage.

“ATR gets it,” a senior GOP aide said. “They want to fight to win, not just fight to fight. They know we can defeat Obamacare with achievable victories, not just lobbing 'Hail Marys' that only serve someone’s presidential aspirations.”

Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., said he thought Heritage Action and the Club for Growth were jeopardizing the sequester spending cuts.

“You risk losing on spending in the effort to win on Obamacare,” Woodall said. He said he thought the two groups were “overpromising” conservatives and that, even if conservatives achieve successes with spending and Obamacare, Republicans would be “underdelivering” in the minds of constituents.

On Wednesday, during a Republican Study Committee meeting — a closed-door huddle with conservatives that the Heritage Foundation was recently kicked out of — a source in the room told CQ Roll Call that Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said, “The folks at Heritage Action and [the Club for Growth] don't have their pictures on my voting card or yours. And I'm tired of them elevating small tactical differences to a scorecard, and I've told them that."

Barney Keller, the Club for Growth’s communications director, dismissed the criticism.

"Anonymous GOP leadership aides should spend less time engaged in petty attacks on outside groups and more time bringing bills to the floor that defund Obamacare and increase economic growth," Keller said. “If I had a nickel for every time some anonymous Republican aide bashed the Club for Growth, I’d take the money and put it all into TV ads in Idaho calling Mike Simpson a liberal.”

Club for Growth is supporting a primary challenger to Idaho Republican Mike Simpson, a strong Boehner ally.

The communications director for Heritage Action, Dan Holler — who also took issue with staffers anonymously taking shots at his organization — told CQ Roll Call that Heritage Action hasn't been marginalized.

“The problem with anonymous quotes is there’s no accountability,” Holler said. “The same folks who come to Heritage and Heritage Action for help when they need votes are the same folks who can turn around and take potshots at their friends."

While Holler defended the push to defund Obamacare, he refused to attack Americans for Tax Reform.

“Every group is responsible for making the play call that they think is the right play call,” he said.

“Sometimes we agree with ATR, sometimes we don’t,” Holler said. “We don’t agree on the CR gimmick; we didn’t agree on the fiscal-cliff tax hike, but it’s up to the members to take the information and make the appropriate decision.”

Holler relayed a story about an unnamed Republican lawmaker who said Heritage doesn’t allow conservatives to coast. The scorecard makes them explain their votes to their constituents, and the lawmaker said he keeps that in mind. “And that’s perfect,” Holler said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

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