Speaker John Boehner’s right flank might not be the conservative albatross that moderates and Democrats have made it out to be, if last spring’s continuing resolution vote and this summer’s debt fight are any indication.
While conservatives have left an indelible imprint not only on the 112th Congress but Boehner’s tenure as Speaker, the reality remains that in the end, the debt limit deal he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) worked out with the White House will likely mark the second time the hard right has found itself on the losing side of Boehner’s political calculus.
In order to secure his victory, Boehner was forced to run everything by the conservative wing of his party. But since he won’t deliver everything it wants, even that show of fealty won’t be enough to stave off criticism from the right.
“While this deal is moving in the right direction rhetorically, thanks to pressure from conservatives, it still falls well short of the standards we have consistently laid out,” Heritage Action for America CEO Michael Needham said in a statement Sunday.
“This deal highlights how dysfunctional Washington has become, and we will continue to oppose it as insufficient to the task at hand,” Needham noted.
And the field will continue to be treacherous. An all-out fight over spending levels for the next fiscal year lies in wait after the debt fight, and the contours of the debt deal virtually guarantee fiscal issues will be front and center through the remainder of the 112th Congress.
“His leadership of the Republicans in the House and being Speaker is clearly at stake here, if he can’t bring his people along,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Fox’s Greta Van Susteren late last week, when Boehner was struggling to round up GOP votes.
“I think Boehner has an unstable Conference, and that makes it difficult for legislation,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Sunday.
But the grumbling from the right isn’t universal, demonstrating that the Speaker still has a power base from which to operate. Both members of the GOP freshman class and established voices of the right in Congress say Boehner still commands respect, even if they won’t always vote with him.
“I would say it’s the exact opposite. Every single person respects him. Every single person,” freshman Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said Sunday.
Even Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has long been a thorn in the side of leadership, dismissed the idea that Boehner’s handling of the talks has weakened his hand internally.
“Everybody gets wounded and scarred up in these skirmishes … [But] I think he’s got a solid core of loyalty in the Conference,” King said.
Boehner will clearly still have a conservative problem. After all, he walked away from talks with President Barack Obama on two separate occasions after conservatives railed against an emerging “grand bargain” that would have included significant increases in revenue as well as spending cuts.
And on Thursday, when it became clear that opposition from conservative activists and members of his Conference would defeat his initial debt limit bill, Boehner was forced to scrap a planned vote and tinker the legislation.
That set off a night of arm-twisting and cajoling by Boehner and his top lieutenants, who ultimately emerged with a more conservative plan. That plan went down in the Senate just hours after House passage on Friday, forcing the principals to the bargaining table again.
Heritage Action for America can count on its allies in the House — most notably Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) and a cadre of mostly veteran conservatives — to not only oppose the debt plan, but also to remain a problem for Boehner through the end of the session.
“The damage has already been done,” a GOP aide said late last week, referring to the fact that Boehner’s laissez faire approach to leadership has emboldened critics within his Conference.
This aide and other Republicans predicted that despite the debt limit deal — which should, in theory, set spending levels for the next two years — that group of conservatives will likely force yet another last-minute nail-biter when Congress is expected to duke it out over a continuing resolution for the next fiscal year.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel tacitly acknowledged that reality over the weekend. In an email, Steel said of conservative holdouts during Friday’s debt vote, “You can’t please everyone, but — by working together — we passed a bill for the second time in two weeks that would increase the debt limit, cut trillions in spending, and advance the cause of a Balanced Budget Amendment.”
But while Boehner is clearly going to have to keep an eye on his right flank, should he deliver a strong majority of his members this week for the debt compromise, it will be a strong indication his Conference remains behind him.
In fact, Republicans said while Boehner is still backed by his natural constituency of the Conference’s “establishment” members, he also remains very popular with the freshman class.
“Everyone I talk to agrees, he’s doing an outstanding job,” Labrador said.
Labrador, who was a late holdout last week against Boehner’s bill — and who came up with the idea of including the balanced budget amendment requirement in the bill the House passed — explained that “I wasn’t persuaded by threats. I was persuaded because he listened to me.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m going to do everything he wants me to do, but that is true leadership,” Labrador added.
“You saw the vote up on the board [Friday]. There were a fair number of those votes that didn’t want to be there. It’s out of loyalty to the Speaker,” King said following the passage of Boehner’s debt bill.
Even during the height of last week’s feud with conservatives, Jordan and other opponents of Boehner’s bill were also very careful to lace praise for Boehner’s efforts throughout their criticisms, a strong signal that while they might not like what he is doing, there isn’t an appetite for a full-scale civil war.
GOP aides also pointed out if, as expected, the debt deal is passed with a majority of Republicans backed by a strong showing of moderate Democrats, it will be an identical outcome to this spring’s continuing resolution fight.
And while that battle left some lingering resentments, the two outcomes would point to a path forward in upcoming debates where Boehner will be similarly tested.
As for the implications of the debt fight for Boehner’s future, Steel said, “Has it been messy at times? Yes, but Republicans will achieve substantial cuts and reforms at the end of this process.”
“The important thing is that Members know that Boehner will fight as hard as he can to do as much as possible to advance our shared goal of a smaller, more accountable federal government,” Steel added.
Steven T. Dennis and Jessica Brady contributed to this report.
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.