House conservatives are gearing up for a fight with Democrats and their own leadership over the size of the upcoming continuing resolution, even as Republican leaders soften their rhetoric regarding President Barack Obama.
Conservatives, unhappy that last month's debt limit deal included significantly higher budget levels than those included in Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget, are demanding the CR — and a subsequent omnibus spending measure — stick to Ryan's numbers rather than those agreed to in the debt deal.
But Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and other leaders are in no mood for another budget battle, and the Appropriations Committee is expected to produce a CR that runs through November that meets the budget levels set in the debt deal.
But the Republican Study Committee — which squared off with Boehner during the debt deal in a losing effort to force deeper cuts — is considering submitting its own CR and actively opposing the appropriations bill.
"We're looking at options," an aide to a conservative lawmaker said last week, adding that "there's a good chance conservatives will put forward a version of the CR" based either on the Ryan budget or possibly the RSC's even leaner budget.
Even some conservative members of the Appropriations Committee might buck their panel leaders.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an appropriator, said that while he does not want to do battle with his leadership, he dismissed the levels in the debt deal as not serious. "You can judge any budget deal in Washington by how much they're willing to cut in the first year," he said, pointing to the relatively low level of cuts expected in fiscal 2012 under the agreement.
Flake also complained that "this was a ceiling, not a floor" when leaders sold the debt deal to the rank and file in August.
The level of anger remains unclear. GOP leadership aides said that while Boehner and his team are aware of conservatives' concerns, most members of the Conference returned from the August recess wanting to leave the fiscal wars of the spring and summer behind them and focus instead on the economy.
One senior aide also pointed out that polling — both public and internal — has clearly demonstrated that protracted partisan fights with the White House have done nothing for the popularity of Republican lawmakers.
With the public having more confidence in Obama than in Republicans, it is critical for the GOP to find common ground with Democrats and move on, the aide argued.
Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) said he would support, in the least, starting with a CR proposal that is set at the Ryan levels as an opening gambit in negotiations with the Senate. But, Campbell said, "I think it's more form than substance ... because we'll end up" at the debt deal levels.
Likewise, conservatives stress it remains unclear whether a full-blown war will take place but they said Members and outside activists appear to be itching for another fight over spending.
"There seems to be a desire to pick a fight over the FY2012 levels" among some of the Conference's most conservative Members, one GOP aide said.
Flake and GOP Reps. Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.) and Tom Graves (Ga.), also appropriators, are circulating a "Dear Colleague" letter to Boehner, Cantor and Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (Ky.) demanding they keep to the Ryan budget levels.
"We write to remind you that the spending cap for Fiscal Year 2012 included in the debt limit deal is a spending ceiling and not a spending floor," the trio writes.
Flake and other conservatives point out that the House has already passed several spending bills this year that use Ryan's budget as a baseline, and they argue that passing a CR at the debt deal levels would be voting for an increase in spending.
"The House simply cannot push the level of discretionary spending for the coming year upwards as its first action after the extended debt ceiling debate," they write.
"Given the current state of U.S. economy, taxpayers' continued focus on cutting deficits and reducing the national debt, and the global attention to spending issues, it would be difficult to conceive of a less opportune time to send such a clear message that Washington continues to be tone deaf when it comes to federal spending," the conservatives added.
The letter has gained the attention of influential outside activists, including the Club for Growth. In an email to lawmakers last week, the group's vice president of government affairs, Andrew Roth, warned that "The Club for Growth strongly supports the letter currently being circulated ... and we urge all members to sign it.
"Balancing the budget needs to be the goal and the debt limit deal doesn't come anywhere close to achieving that," Roth added.