It was, by most accounts, a bad week for outside conservative groups.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, blasted them last week for coming out against the budget deal in a kind of declaration of independence after a difficult year of bitter internecine sparring. And despite groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth bashing the deal and key voting against it, House Republicans overwhelmingly stuck with their speaker.
In the end, 169 Republicans (73 percent) voted for the budget and against their scorecards.
What you didn’t see, however, was Heritage Action or Club for Growth key vote against the rule for the budget deal. Amid all the noise about the budget and the relationship between these groups and leadership, their silence on the rule allowed the deal to go through without drama. A single Republican voted against the rule — and only 16 more of the 62 Republicans who voted against the budget would have been enough to bring it down.
Barney Keller, the communications director for the Club for Growth, told CQ Roll Call that had the groups key voted the rule, it “probably” would have gone down.
So why didn’t Heritage Action and the Club for Growth come out against the procedural vote?
Keller said the group is more interested in providing a “snapshot” of member positions than influencing floor action.
“I think our scorecard serves as a good tool for holding members accountable for what they say,” Keller said. “It’s not more complicated than that.”
“We let the chips fall as they may,” he added.
But would the rule have “probably” gone down if the outside groups pushed against it?
“The claim that they could have taken down the rule is just bullshit,” a senior GOP aide told CQ Roll Call on Monday.
“People are already questioning their legitimacy, and key voting the rule would have been a test of their relevancy that they would have failed,” the aide said.
That seems to be the take among many senior Republicans: The risk of an embarrassing defeat was too great.
“A year ago, our members were more scared of Club for Growth and Heritage Action. After the shutdown, these groups have kind of been marginalized,” the aide continued. “Members are less apt to listen to them.”
Another senior GOP aide pointed out that nearly three quarters of the conference, including two thirds of the Republican Study Committee, were not concerned with the key votes, proving “that their influence continues to diminish and their scorecards are largely irrelevant," the aide said.
Boehner assailed the groups last week, saying, “Frankly, I think they are misleading their followers,” and that they have “lost all credibility.”
But the groups are still players — inside and outside of Washington.
That's why House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan had to navigate an almost impossible line of rhetoric last week, defending the deal while praising the groups who were bashing it.
"I think these groups are valuable,” the Wisconsin Republican said on Fox News last week. “The way I look at it is this: They are part of our conservative family, and I'd prefer we keep these conversations within our family.”
Ryan said Boehner’s blowup was a response to some of the groups’ pre-emptive criticism.
“John was frustrated because they came out against our agreement before we even reached an agreement. I was frustrated about that as well, but I see the tea party as indispensable, valuable in helping keep the taxpayer in the game, keep Washington accountable,” Ryan said.
But what seemed to really anger Boehner was that the groups were going after Ryan.
"Boehner takes a lot of criticism, and it mostly rolls off this back,” a senior GOP aide told CQ Roll Call on Monday. “But he is close to Ryan and seemed very offended when these ‘conservative’ outside fundraising groups started attacking the most thoughtful conservative leader in the House."
Another senior GOP aide summed it up this way: “Boehner is very protective of Ryan.”
Dan Holler, the communications director for Heritage Action, said it was “unfortunate” and “unclear” why Boehner made the comments last week. Much of the substance of the deal, Holler said, was lost because people were focusing on the Ohio Republican’s comments.
“Instead of acknowledging what it was, the speaker made it a barometer of conservatism,” Holler said.
Holler said this budget deal was "typical of how Washington used to work. Where people would get together, cut out their bases and pass deals that incrementally increase the size of government."
As for why Heritage Action didn’t key vote the rule, Holler said such a move is incredibly rare, if not unprecedented. (The Club for Growth could only think of three times it has ever key voted a rule.)
But more than that, Holler indicated that Heritage Action recognized this was a bipartisan deal, where Democrats would come to the rescue if the deal — or the rule — were actually in trouble.
“The idea that Democrats were going to allow this deal to fall apart, I don’t think is backed up by any of the evidence,” Holler said.
“They weren’t going to allow a $63 billion spending increase to get jettisoned,” he said.
And it's quite possible that if they had succeeded in bringing down the rule, it would only have sent Republican leaders into the waiting arms of Democrats looking to extract more concessions.