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While the presidential election could help unify House Republicans this year, leaders shouldn’t expect a free pass from conservatives who will not shy away from challenging leadership over key legislative items.
Following a three-day retreat in Philadelphia sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, conservative leaders and rank-and-file Members alike insisted tensions between themselves and Speaker John Boehner’s (Ohio) leadership team have helped the party draw a distinction between themselves and Democrats. And, they said, those struggles are likely to continue to a certain degree.
“We felt like we tried to play that role last year, but we want to be involved again this year” in making the case for the conservative agenda, Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) said at the retreat.
When asked if he thought Republicans would be able to avoid some of the fighting that marred their efforts last year, Jordan said, “I think so. I hope so.” He explained that conservatives need to sharply define their differences with Democrats and that “as the Republican Conference, and conservatives in the Conference, that’s our charge this year … [to show] there’s a difference between [the nominee] and President [Barack] Obama.”
Throughout 2011, Jordan’s RSC — and conservatives in general — were a thorn in Boehner’s side. Conservatives were particularly hard on leadership on spending matters and forced Republicans into a series of ugly, drawn-out fights over continuing resolutions, the budget, the debt ceiling and a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut. Although conservatives in many ways relished the fights — viewing them as a chance to create a stark difference
between themselves and Democrats — they came at a significant cost.
Internal polling since the summer has shown that the constant threats of a government shutdown and endless brinkmanship soured the public to Republicans.
Conservatives also had a significant effect on the GOP’s policy agenda. For instance, they derailed a reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act temporarily last spring, and by keeping the focus on spending and the debt, they left little time for other matters in the public mind.
Conservatives, however, insist their efforts have been good for the party.
“I think tension is a good thing. It’s how you grow muscle. Stress and pressure and heat — that’s how diamonds are made,” said Rep. Steve Southerland (Fla.), one of the freshman Republicans who often banded with Jordan and other veteran conservatives last year against leadership.