House Republicans are trying to recover their legendary discipline ahead of a defining battle on raising the debt limit.
The effort comes following unprecedented GOP defections last week on a compromise proposal brokered by Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) to fund the government for the next six months, a vote that exposed fractures within the Conference over how far the House GOP should push for spending cuts and fiscal reform.
Fifty-nine Republicans voted against the agreement that cuts $38.5 billion from the rest of this year’s budget, forcing House Republicans to rely on Democrats to pass the bill.
Despite the setback, Republican leaders late last week rallied their rank and file to vote in favor of a controversial and ambitious 2012 budget proposal that could leave many of them exposed on the campaign trail.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) told reporters after a closed-door Conference meeting Friday that House Republicans are on the same page.
“We are united in cutting spending. We are united in promoting growth and we are united in the fact that we don’t believe that we should be raising taxes in this tough economy,” Cantor said. “All of these things I think set us apart from members in the caucus on the other side of the aisle.”
Republicans easily passed the budget legislation 235-193 on a party-line vote Friday with just four GOP lawmakers opposing the bill.
Still, with an even larger and more significant fight over raising the debt ceiling on the horizon, Boehner’s ability to take a hard line with Democratic negotiators remains in question.
“I think any time we have defections it lessens the Speaker’s bargaining position because people think, ‘Oh, they can’t pass something,’” Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) said.
Rep. John Kline agreed.
“Obviously you are in a stronger position if you can control the outcome in your own party,” the Minnesota Republican said.
While Republican leaders struggled, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer displayed his power to deliver Democratic votes. At Republican leaders’ request, the Maryland Democrat orchestrated two waves of roughly 40 Democratic “yes” votes on the continuing resolution after it was clear that Republicans could not pass the bill on their own.
In an interview with Roll Call, Hoyer said that while the spending bill did not reflect his priorities, it was “something that needed to pass in order to keep the government operating, and it was clear to me we weren’t going to get a better [agreement] by just delaying.”
While House Democrats, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) in particular, were noticeably absent from the negotiations, Hoyer said the group will play a pivotal role “on a case-by-case” basis going forward.
House Democrats said they believe the debt limit will be another opportunity for Hoyer.
“I think Steny’s hand is very much strengthened by this process and he should be brought into the negotiations in the future,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a leader of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition.
The California Democrat said the continuing resolution vote highlighted the challenge Boehner will have going forward, managing the divide between business and tea party Republicans. Cardoza said that to pick up Democratic support Boehner runs the risk of imperiling his standing with conservatives.
“There are a lot of us who want to work with him and want to do the right thing for our country,” Cardoza said. “The question is whether the right wing of his caucus will allow him to do that.”
But House Republicans who are already starting to draw a line in the sand over what must be included in a final package will make compromise hard.
Freshman Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said it was important for spending control measures, particularly a balanced budget amendment, be attached to the debt ceiling vote.
Despite the growing list of demands, several GOP lawmakers, even those who broke ranks on the CR vote, defended Boehner and said he would be able to get Republicans to stick together on the debt limit increase by extracting significant cuts.
“I think you will see our conference pretty strong on the debt limit,” said Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, who voted against the measure. “I think everyone in our conference understands that if you are going to increase the bond authority of the country, you need to get some more spending cuts and some real reform.”
The Ohioan said he was “hopeful we’re all on the same page on that one.”
And although he was among the Republican defectors on the continuing resolution, Rep. Patrick McHenry (N.C.) cautioned that Democrats “shouldn’t read too much into this vote as some predictor of future results.”
While McHenry said the conference remained strongly behind Boehner and that there was broad understanding of the challenges the Speaker faces in terms of negotiating with President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats, he said Boehner should take a different approach to the debt limit increase.
“Members ought to be brought into the process earlier for this next round, I think that will be important,” he said.
Freshman Rep. Steve Southerland, who also opposed the continuing resolution but voted for the Ryan budget, said he still has faith in Boehner’s conservative credentials even though the Speaker was not able to negotiate cuts as deep as he would have wanted on the stopgap funding bill.
“I have not known him long, but I believe him to be a conservative,” the Florida Republican said. “When conservative resolutions are brought before us, I think he will have broad support. … I have not lost trust in our leadership at all. But let me say this: Trust is not based on unwavering support at all times.”