This week, John Boehner took on the tea party and steamrolled it.
It was a cathartic experience for the Republican House Speaker, who finally stood up to the movement that has been pushing him around for three years, recently coercing him into shutting down the government for 16 days in a fanciful quest to defund Obamacare.
Wealthy conservative outside groups such as Heritage Action, Club For Growth and FreedomWorks were united in pushing lawmakers to scuttle a two-year bipartisan budget deal. Boehner responded by publicly excoriating them as having “lost all credibility.” Then he delivered 169 Republicans for the bill. Just 62 voted against it. The final tally was 332-94.
“It’s a declaration of independence from groups that have had a stranglehold on the Republican conference,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and erstwhile senior aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. “And for Speaker Boehner to be bold and go after these groups — I think it’s a pretty big deal.”
A poorly kept secret within the House Republican conference is a large majority of members does not want to vote in lock-step with tea party organizations. They’re pressured into it by scorched-earth tactics from these groups who threaten them with primary challengers, unflattering scorecards and attack ads against lawmakers who don’t abide by their wishes. Boehner, in attempts to protect his own speakership and his members’ standing back at home, has repeatedly surrendered his own judgment to the wishes of these groups.
“There’s been long simmering hostility here not just between Boehner and conservatives but between rank-and-file members and conservatives,” Feehery said. “These groups want to continually embarrass Republicans to raise money. And that hostility finally bubbled over.”
As hopeful as the GOP establishment is about taking back the reins from the tea party, there are many reasons to be skeptical that Boehner’s actions this week are a harbinger of things to come.
“I’d say it’s far too early to assume the budget vote is a sign of things to come,” said John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University. “Conservative House Republicans aren’t likely to revise their views about the size of government, immigration, and other issues — and they aren’t likely to lose their seats in 2014. I suspect that Boehner will have to navigate the treacherous waters in his caucus again.”
Norm Ornstein, a centrist scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Boehner’s decision to show his spine against the right “tapped into a broader zeitgeist” of House GOP anger at the conservative groups, but posited that it wasn’t going to last.
“Does this mean Club For Growth, Heritage Action and FreedomWorks are going to be cowed and melt away and fade into the background? Come on. Of course not,” he said. “The way this stuff usually works is that you do one thing that defies the power centers on the right and you end up compensating on other stuff instead of pushing them into the wilderness.”
The budget agreement struck by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) steered clear of the conservative base’s most important red line: it didn’t touch tax revenues. The modest spending increase was a trade-off to satisfy Republican military hawks and appropriators who despised the across-the-board sequester cuts.
The two major items Boehner wants to make part of his legacy, according to many sources close to him, are a long-term deficit agreement and immigration reform. Both are a long, long way off. A long-term budget deal, as Democrats have made clear, requires compromise on tax revenues and reforms to keep Medicare and Social Security fully solvent into the future. Opposition to an immigration overhaul that legalizes the 11 million people in the country without documentation runs deep in the conservative psyche: many see it as an existential threat to the country.
Boehner’s recent hire of top-tier immigration policy aide, Rebecca Talent, who led Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) push for reform in the Bush years, suggests the Speaker wants an overhaul. Whether he’s capable of overcoming fierce tea party pressures is not at all clear. But the GOP establishment believes that thwarting reform poses an existential threat to the party.
“I think this bodes well for immigration reform,” Feehery said. “I think it bodes well for getting an agreement on farm programs. It shows Congress can function and members aren’t going to be punished for it. Some of these groups are going to run primaries, but they’re paper tigers.”
The conservative groups shot down by Boehner fired back at him this week.
“The Speaker is trying to turn this into a boring fight between outside groups and himself so that we’re not having a policy debate about whether or not this is a good deal,” Michael Needham, the leader of Heritage Action, said on MSNBC. He said the focus of the debate should be on policy and not “about whether Heritage Action is up or down this week.”
Democrats see Boehner’s rebuke to conservative groups as a necessary first step but not a sufficient one. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) called it “a breath of fresh air.” But they are reluctant to say if he can capitalize on it and make Congress more functional.
The House has adjourned for the holidays, and Boehner will begin 2014 on a positive note. The most important upshot of this week may be to teach House conservatives, many of which are new to Congress, that they don’t always have to obey the orders of outside groups.
“Part of this is just training the members — many of these members haven’t been around for a long time. It’s a learning process,” Feehery said. “And I think they learned that getting something done is an important part of being in Congress.”
Ornstein argued that Republicans were somewhat friendlier to the budget deal because it would avoid another painful shutdown and let them keep the focus on Obamacare, which they are convinced will collapse under its own weight. He said they’ll continue to pay a heavy price for embracing the tea party’s maximalist agenda against President Barack Obama.
“I think their initial view,” he said, “was that it was better to have them inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. But now the feeling from a lot of these guys is, ‘we brought them inside the tent and they started to piss on us.'”