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Tea Party Class Would Test Boehner

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Minority Leader John Boehner is confident that as Speaker he could manage a rambunctious conservative majority in the next Congress. But some GOP backbenchers are already warning that they expect Boehner to sign a “blood oath” to stand up for their issues.

Would-be Speaker John Boehner asserted last week that he can manage a strongly conservative, tea-party-inspired majority next year, but potential government shutdowns and efforts to terminate earmarks are already emerging as issues that could divide his party.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the most outspoken conservatives in the House, said last week that he wants Boehner and other House leaders to sign a “blood oath” that they will include a repeal of health care reform in every appropriations bill next year, even if President Barack Obama vetoes the bills and a government shutdown occurs.

“I’d like to challenge them to make that pledge,” King said. “I’d like [Boehner] to make that commitment that if the president shuts down the government, there wouldn’t be a repeat of 1995 where the House caved,” King said.

Boehner addressed the issue last week in his weekly press conference.

“I am committed to doing everything I can do, and our team can do, to prevent Obamacare from being implemented,” Boehner said. “And when I say everything, I mean, everything.”

But Boehner said a government shutdown wasn’t in his plans. “Our goal is to have a smaller, less costly and more accountable government here in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Our goal is not to shut down the government.”

And Boehner asserted that he will be able to manage a majority that will include a number of tea-party-inspired candidates.

“Listen, I grew up in a family of 12, my dad owned a bar and, as I like to say, all of the training that I need for my job, I learned growing up. ... You grow up in a big family, you have to learn to get along with each other, you have to learn to get things done together, you need to work as a family.”

Boehner added: “You work around a bar, I mopped floors, I cleaned dishes, I waited tables, I tended bar. You have to learn to deal with every character who walks in the door.”

Boehner has courted the tea party movement since the spring of 2009, attending rallies and encouraging his Members to reach out to the movement. He has campaigned for many of the nominees who are expected to come to D.C. and knows them personally, allies said. And Boehner is one of the most conservative Republicans in the House, although he also maintains support from moderate Republicans who appreciate his gregarious style and willingness to listen to their concerns.

But the tea party has repeatedly rocked the GOP establishment in party primaries, from the defeat of Dede Scozzafava in New York to Rep. Mike Castle’s Senate primary loss in Delaware last week.

King warned that he and other House conservatives aligned with the tea party could form a bloc threatening to take down House rules if Boehner puts bills on the floor that they consider too weak.

King said that Republican moderates successfully threatened to bring down rules on bills in the past but that the tables will be turned in 2011 and conservatives will hold the upper hand.

“The conventional wisdom of establishment Republicans does not apply,” he said. “If you think conservative Republicans don’t have any place to go, just look at the Republican primaries.”

King said the problem in 1995 wasn’t the government shutdown under President Bill Clinton — which occurred after Republicans attached Medicare cuts and other items to spending bills — it was that Republicans blinked when they feared the polls were turning against them.

“We must not blink,” he said, noting that money cannot be spent without the House voting to pass it. “If the House says no, it’s no.”

Their new tea party backers won’t tolerate anything less than a full repeal of the health care law, he said.

“They will leave us if we go wobbly,” he said. “I am worried about that, but that’s why I think it’s got to be a blood oath.”

Other Republicans, however, said the party should avoid such extreme tactics — and said Boehner has the credibility to avoid them.

“Boehner is a perfect fit for this class,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “He has lived through this thing before. I don’t think it is wise for us to shut down the government, and I think having somebody that lived through that experience talk to our Members about [what] the consequences of that are is really going to be helpful.”

Other Republicans also shied away from shutdown talk. Conservative Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.) walked back comments predicting a government shutdown a few weeks ago after Democrats jumped on them.

Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said a government shutdown would be up to Obama.

“That question is more for the president than it is for us,” he said. “The ball is really going to be in the president’s court, whether he wants to work with Congress or campaign for the next two years.”

Several moderate Republicans also praised Boehner last week for keeping the party focused on fiscal issues that unite them, but they said he will have a challenge next year.

Uniting the party is “always challenging for a leader,” Rep. Patrick Tiberi said. But the Ohio Republican said GOP leaders understand that they have a diverse Conference and that Republicans need moderates and conservatives alike in their coalition.

Republicans also have split over what to do with earmarks, with some advocating an end to them entirely and others, particularly appropriators, eyeing a return to business as usual.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has in the past criticized the Minority Leader for not being tough enough on earmarks, is hoping Boehner puts an end to what Flake calls the “earmark favor factory.

Boehner prevailed this year on Members to abide by a one-year moratorium, but that wasn’t particularly hard given there was little expectation that spending bills would be passed anyway, Flake said.

“The real test is to come, but there are positive signs,” he said.

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