This Congress, Price and Hensarling are out of the leadership team. Price lost a bid for conference chairman to Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who was backed by leadership, and Hensarling became chairman of the financial-services committee. At one point, Boehner offered Price a largely ceremonial spot at the leadership table if he would drop his candidacy and pledge not to publicly break with Boehner for two years. Price declined.
Price’s ambition in particular provokes a great deal of suspicion from Boehner and leadership. The two essentially have no relationship, sources close to both men say, and there are perceptions of a broader distrust between the speaker and the Council. Some leadership aides ask whether the Jedi Council is designing the next debt-ceiling fight to culminate in a challenge to Boehner’s speakership; one rank-and-file House member told me in March that the Jedi Council pitched re-sequencing to him as a way of giving Boehner the rope he needed to hang himself. A Jedi Council member told me — before the Council’s decision not to speak to National Review Online — that this isn’t their plan, and several knowledgeable sources agreed that a coup doesn’t sound like them. (For one thing, trying to take out Boehner in the middle of a Congress could have adverse effects on the 2014 elections.)
As for the other members of the Council, Ryan has forged a closer relationship with Boehner since being picked for the Romney presidential ticket. Scalise and Jordan retain good working relationships with the leadership, but Hensarling, out of leadership, has drifted away.
Each of the five members of the Jedi Council brings a different strength and reaches a different part of the GOP conference, supporters say. Ryan has star power and deep credibility on budget issues. Hensarling is the elder statesman of the RSC, a longstanding conservative House caucus. Price, a physician, has expertise on health care. Jordan enjoys friendships with some of the most stubborn conservative members of the GOP conference. Scalise, elected in 2008, is coming into his own and has relationships with some cliques that the others know less well.
In the view of some conservative groups, the Williamsburg Accord has been a mixed bag, and Ryan in particular is in danger of losing his sheen because of his role, even if few observers realize it. Some prominent conservatives were shocked, for example, to learn that the Ryan budget achieves balance in ten years in part because it assumes that tax revenues will remain at their current level, 19 percent of GDP, which includes the fiscal-cliff and Obamacare tax increases. Officially, this revenue level will be achieved by a reformed tax system with lower rates and the resultant economic growth. But the assumed tax revenues as a percentage of GDP are higher than their historic average, which the outside groups find problematic. Both Heritage Action and the Club for Growth have nonetheless stayed neutral on the proposal, avoiding a fight and giving Ryan more room to maneuver.
House conservatives are also concerned that the improving economy has made it possible to postpone the debt-ceiling fight again and again: As more tax revenue comes in, the Treasury Department can fund the government longer with its existing borrowing authority. Ryan said in a recent radio interview that debt-ceiling D-Day will now come in November, much later than the summer battle originally anticipated.
The building angst about the strategy is partly why Senate conservatives, led by Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, began calling for using the upcoming continuing-resolution (CR) bill to defund Obamacare, a departure from the path laid out at Williamsburg. Cruz in particular has been quite successful at driving the debate in the media, even while the Jedi Council and other House Republicans have rejected his approach.
Boehner announced yesterday during a conference call with rank-and-file members that he will push for a short-term CR — a strong hint that a do-or-die Obamacare fight isn’t in the mix during the CR debate. Instead, leadership will follow the original plan to force a debt-ceiling brawl. That plan, however, prompts questions about the fine print of the Williamsburg Accord — what, that is, the brawl should be about. A source familiar with the deal recently told me, “The agreement was that it would include cuts or reforms that put us ‘on the path to balance’ in ten years. The bill wouldn’t necessarily have to achieve balance in ten years all by itself.”
What does putting the budget on a “path to balance” mean? “You can drive a truck through that loophole,” says one senior GOP aide. Scalise has talked about trading parts of the Ryan budget for increases in the debt ceiling — small tax and spending reforms for small debt-ceiling increases, and big reforms for bigger increases. Boehner would negotiate the details with President Obama, in theory producing some middle-ground deal.
How closely will House leaders stick to the Williamsburg Accord once tensions rise and the debt ceiling approaches? In public remarks, Boehner has said several different things, including promising a debt-ceiling increase only in return for the same amount in cuts and saying that “our goal here is to get this country on a path to balance the budget over ten years.” A spokesman clarified to NRO that no decisions have been made.
House majority leader Eric Cantor says he is on board with tying the debt-ceiling increase to reforms that balance the budget in ten years, calling such an approach “sensible.” He adds, underscoring his desire for urgent reform, “We have a demographic reality of 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, and a programmatic reality of Medicare being almost 50 percent underfunded.”
Although Boehner and Cantor will be making the final decisions about the debt-ceiling fight, it’s Ryan for whom the expectations are high. “I think the whole episode puts a lot of burden on Ryan — and the rest of the gang, but especially Paul, who got the exact sequencing he wanted to have,” Needham says.
It’s not quite fate of the universe, but when the debt-ceiling fight arrives this fall, much will be riding on the wisdom of Ryan and his allies.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.