With critical negotiations to raise the federal debt ceiling under way, Speaker John Boehner is still struggling with a strong sense of distrust among his fellow Republicans over the last big deal he struck with Democrats.
Republicans have bluntly warned that dissatisfaction with the way the Ohio lawmaker handled the continuing resolution talks last month will make it difficult for him to sell a debt deal unless he expands the circle of House Members involved in the negotiations.
“In order to get 218 ... you are going to have to have a wider array of people who have ownership of whatever the final agreement is,” one GOP lawmaker said.
The lawmaker, whose views were echoed by others, said that while leadership did well to keep Members informed early in the CR negotiation, information dried up as the deal was being finalized.
“Right when it mattered most, people knew the least, and that is a problem and that is not a lasting way to gain momentum or to achieve results,” the lawmaker said.
The issue is a complex one for Boehner, who had to rely on House Democrats — 81 of them — to pass a CR deal that he triumphantly negotiated with the White House and the Senate. The Republican Conference is packed with independent-minded conservatives, many of them freshmen, whom Boehner has yet to corral into a reliable bloc of votes for his initiatives.
Rep. Steve King, a conservative who voted against the CR, said Boehner needs backup going into this next round of negotiations.
“I think the negotiations can be more effective if we have more people at the table who can actually represent a position,” the Iowa Republican said. “How can you ask the Speaker to know the positions of everybody in our Conference? Nobody knows it better, but he can’t know all of our positions.”
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel downplayed concerns with what Boehner’s handling of the CR fight portends for the debt limit vote, saying Republicans remain focused on securing additional spending reductions as part of the deal.
“The President has asked us to raise the debt limit, but the American people will not tolerate an increase unless we deal with the real problem: out-of-control Washington spending,” Steel said in a statement. “We’re listening to them. If we’re going to do this, it must be accompanied by real spending cuts and reforms to the way Washington spends taxpayers’ money.”
A GOP leadership aide said Boehner and other leaders “certainly are cognizant of the concerns” of their rank-and-file Members and are taking steps to address them. For instance, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam (Ill.) and Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) are holding a new round of listening sessions to discuss the debt limit and build a consensus position.
Demonstrating his hard line on the debt, Boehner warned in a speech at the Economic Club of New York on Monday that “without significant spending cuts and reforms to reduce our debt, there will be no debt limit increase. And the cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given.”
“We should be talking about cuts of trillions, not just billions. They should be actual cuts and program reforms, not broad deficit or debt targets that punt the tough questions to the future,” he added.
Boehner seems to have taken some of the internal criticism he received to heart. So far, he has largely stood behind conservative demands that entitlement reforms remain part of budget talks, and he has staked out a fairly aggressive demand for deep spending reductions as part of the debt limit fight.
Unlike their listening sessions on the budget, which touched on the CR and other issues, the ongoing sessions with freshmen and rank and file on the debt limit are designed specifically for that debate. The hope, Republicans said, is to build support for specific demands before negotiations on the debt limit begin in earnest later this summer.
In addition, leadership will continue to hold weekly briefings with the full Conference as well as meeting with the freshman class to keep them apprised of how talks progress.
But the aide cautioned that once talks get serious, leaders probably will be able to provide only so much information to rank-and-file lawmakers since Boehner is wary of having too much information leak to the press.
Part of the problem on the CR may stem from Boehner’s decision to delegate much of the CR negotiation power to top staffer Barry Jackson. Lawmakers said they felt excluded from the negotiations and uninformed on key details, which led them to vote against the deal.
Aides and lawmakers privately acknowledged that Jackson himself is at issue. A skilled political operative, Jackson has long been one of the Speaker’s closest political confidants, working with him during his first decade in Congress as chief of staff before moving to the White House under George W. Bush.
Jackson’s political acumen and depth of contacts in Washington, D.C., are almost unparalleled, and they have served both him and Boehner well. But Jackson’s insider credentials and the amount of trust Boehner puts in him have caused some to question the Speaker’s reliance on him. In an era of heightened anti-Washington sentiment even among Members of Congress, Republicans have questioned his role, particularly during the CR fight.
Even Boehner’s own leadership team warned the Speaker about his handling of the deal. In multiple meetings, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), McCarthy and others complained that Jackson was settling too quickly on a low level for overall spending cuts and that it would be impossible for them to secure enough Republicans to pass the bill without Democratic help.
In fact, those frustrations boiled over during a meeting shortly before last month’s CR vote. According to Republicans familiar with the issue, the meeting, which was originally not scheduled to be about the CR, quickly became a forum for rank-and-file Members to express their frustrations. Numerous lawmakers complained about Boehner’s process and argued that Boehner and Jackson should have held out for a deal with significantly deeper spending cuts.
Initially, it appeared Boehner was approaching the debt limit differently — tapping Cantor to lead the House Republican negotiating team. However, most lawmakers said the bipartisan group is more for show and that real negotiating will be done elsewhere, with Boehner plugged in directly.
Not everyone thinks that’s a bad idea. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said negotiating deals is the Speaker’s job.
“You have 435 egos here; we’d all like to be in the room,” the second-term lawmaker said. “The reality is we elected leadership to do that, and I think they’ve been very responsive in allowing us to express our opinions.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.