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Conservative Groups Start New Congress With Dose of Reality

This issue of “regular order” appears to be of primary importance to conservative activists, with comments about being willing to force a policy debate with the Democrats, and using the legislative process to do so, arising unprompted in interviews with Chocola, a former Indiana congressman, as well as Needham and FreedomWorks President and CEO Matt Kibbe, who served as a House Budget Committee aide in the 1990s.

As if for emphasis, Kibbe and Needham praised the government spending bill that was passed by House Republicans early in 2011 and the fiscal 2012 budget plan of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in large part because each bill cleared the House under regular order. Needham noted that Heritage Action did not make the spending bill a key vote despite its belief that it fell short on policy, primarily because it was debated under regular order.

Chocola joined Kibbe and Needham in saying that a key change they would like to see from House Republicans in the 113th Congress is not just a return to regular order, but also a refusal to abandon the bills they pass through that process in favor of closed-door talks with Reid and the Obama administration, as they did during the debates over the 2011 debt ceiling increase and the fiscal cliff.

A priority for these tea-party-friendly groups is how Republicans go about selling their plans. While they volunteered plenty of criticism for Boehner and other congressional GOP leaders, some of the conservatives interviewed for this story confirmed, albeit gingerly, that they believe their stalwarts in Congress have failed to offer — during the fiscal cliff debate, at least — a coherent, unified and appealing message to persuade voters to side with them on fiscal issues.

Just voting “no” with the comfort that their gerrymandered district agrees with them is not a strategy, nor is it politically helpful, some acknowledged.

“You can’t beat a bad idea with nothing,” Kibbe said. “We seem to get into these fiscal wars without any ideas in our quiver.”

Electorally, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Heritage Action say it’s too early to tell how active they will be in the 2014 elections and how much of their efforts will go to targeting incumbents in primaries. Chocola said he is pleased with his organization’s 2012 record, ticking off the list of GOP-establishment-backed candidates who lost on Nov. 6, suggesting the club’s record would be pristine if not for Richard Mourdock’s Senate loss in Indiana.

But Kibbe was candid about his belief that conservative activist groups, including his own, could improve their Election Day showing if they work harder to identify candidates who fit their policy profile and are also capable politicians who know how to win. And he suggested that one way to go about that might be to recruit good candidates, rather than simply choosing from the most conservative candidate who happens to run.

“There is huge room for improvement,” Kibbe said.

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