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Boehner Faces First Defections

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Speaker John Boehner experienced a series of legislative setbacks this week, showing that party unity isn’t always a given in the majority.

Speaker John Boehner is getting his first real dose of what it means to govern.

In less than 24 hours this week, the new Speaker witnessed an uprising from within his own ranks that resulted in a trio of legislative setbacks. It was an early reminder that party unity isn’t a given and that the Ohio Republican has some work to do to keep his Members in line.

He doesn’t have much time. Divisions are already surfacing over the forthcoming continuing resolution, set to come to the floor next week, which would cut federal spending by $32 billion, far less than the $100 billion that conservatives claim leaders promised during the campaign. 

Boehner on Wednesday acknowledged the challenges he faces.

“We’ve been in the majority four weeks,” Boehner told reporters.  “We’re not going to be perfect every day.”

Although conservative Republicans were among the defectors, GOP leaders disputed the notion that their decision to pull a trade bill from the floor late Tuesday and their failure to muster a two-thirds vote to pass an extension of the USA PATRIOT Act a few hours later signaled that they had lost control of the Conference. 

“What are you talking about?” Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in response to a question about GOP unity. The Virginia Republican blamed the PATRIOT Act’s demise on the “36 Democrats who voted ... differently than they did last year” on the bill. 

“It shows that they’re not serious,” he said. “I mean, c’mon, this is needed for our law enforcement folks.” 

Tuesday night’s setbacks on the trade measure and the PATRIOT Act were followed Wednesday by another blow. New York Republicans — led by Rep. Peter King — helped bring down one of Cantor’s signature YouCut proposals: a bill designed to “retrieve” $178 million in funds paid to the United Nations.

Cantor has pledged to bring one YouCut bill to the floor each week to help trim the federal deficit.

Even some Republicans said the unforced errors suggest GOP leaders are still getting used to managing the floor.

“We’re in the majority now, and we’re just getting our legs under us so it’s bound to not be so smooth a road at the beginning,” Rep. Bill Shuster said.  “But we’ll get our legs under us, and we’ll be moving forward.”

The Pennsylvania Republican said this week’s mishaps were instructive. 

“When you’re not successful, you can learn a lot from that, and I think we will,” he said. 

One Republican lawmaker said leaders were questioned during the closed-door Conference meeting Wednesday morning about whether they erred when they decided to bring up the PATRIOT Act extension under suspension of the rules, a process that requires a two-thirds vote for passage. 

“We’re 30 days into the majority,” the GOP Member said. “I think the fair thing to say is that the leadership is thinking through how to approach bills like this. It’s very easy, when you bring things up under suspension, if the minority wants to take it down, they can. We used to do that ... so that was kind of a learning day for us.” 

Republican leaders said they will try once again to pass the PATRIOT Act and the trade bill under a rule, which would require just a simple majority for passage. A GOP leadership aide said Wednesday afternoon that there would be another attempt to extend the PATRIOT Act provisions before they expire at the end of the month. 

Even if Republicans are able to repair the damage of this week, one GOP aide said the party faces more significant tests in the coming weeks. The GOP House majority claims 87 new Members, many of whom ran on a conservative tea-party-inspired platform.

“This new breed of freshmen don’t feel any sense of accountability to party structure,” the aide said. “I think you are going to have a difference [of opinion] on a lot of things.”

This aide cited as examples the upcoming votes on the budget and the debt ceiling. Members of the Tea Party Caucus and the conservative Republican Study Committee are pressing for deeper cuts than what GOP leaders have proposed, and they have not ruled out defections if they don’t get their way. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the debt limit didn’t pass,” the aide said.

Rep. Steve King signaled that conservatives are emboldened to take on Republican leadership again to press for their priorities. 

“I want to make this clear: I want leadership to succeed ... and I want the conservative agenda to also succeed. To the extent that those can be compatible, that’s what I’m for,” the Iowa Republican said, adding, “The conservative faction wants to get things done like cut spending dramatically, unfund[ing] Obamacare and take a look at this debt ceiling.”  

Republicans leaders think they are well-positioned to get the votes that they need on the CR — funding for the government expires March 4 — and have pointed out that leadership does not whip bills on the suspension calendar, such as those that hit snags this week.

Republicans say Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) is already engaged in conversations with rank-and-file Members ahead of the next week’s CR debate and on the debt ceiling. 

Meanwhile, Democrats seemed all too pleased to watch Republicans struggle to find their footing.

Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson said the GOP is in “disarray.”

“I don’t think they really have found their center yet in terms of from which they are going to govern,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “They have the responsibility of governing, and it seems right now they are coming apart at the seams.”

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said it was easy for Republicans to complain when they were in the minority, but now they are going to have to exercise some leadership.

“I think the American public is going to have an opportunity to view the Republicans’ performance as opposed to the rhetoric they have been using for the past few years,” the Maryland Democrat said.

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