Score One for Boehner

by Andrew Stiles
House leadership beat their conservative critics in the budget battle, but the war’s not over.

By a vote of 332–94, the House approved a controversial two-year budget agreement Thursday evening. More important, Republicans backed the measure overwhelmingly, 169 to 62, an outcome sure to be seen as a victory for GOP leaders over their activist critics.

Conservative outside groups had slammed the agreement, negotiated by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and his Senate counterpart Patty Murray (D., Wash.), before it was even announced, prompting an uncharacteristically impassioned response from House speaker John Boehner.  

“This is ridiculous,” Boehner said loudly during a press conference on Wednesday, after accusing such groups — presumably, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, and Club for Growth, among others — of “using our members.” “And they’re using the American people for their own goals,” he said.

Sources close to Boehner tell National Review Online that the speaker, known for his “thick skin,” did not take kindly to the attacks on his close friend and political ally Paul Ryan.  

“I take my fair share of criticism from the right, and from the left,” Boehner told reporters Thursday morning. “But when groups come out and criticize an agreement that they’ve never seen you begin to wonder just how credible those actions are. So yesterday, when the criticism was coming, frankly I thought it was my job and my obligation to stand up for conservatives here in the Congress who want more deficit reduction, to stand up for the work that Chairman Ryan did.”

Many believe Boehner’s strong stance was at least in part a form of retaliation for the government-shutdown standoff. The party’s image is still recovering from that fight, even as the Obamacare fiasco has Democrats on the defensive. Outside groups were guilty of “misleading their followers” and “pushing members into places they don’t want to be,” the speaker said of the shutdown. “Frankly, I think they’ve lost all credibility.”

Boehner specifically called out, though not by name, Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham, a key player in the campaign to defund Obamacare that led to the shutdown, by  referencing Needham’s remarks in an interview with Fox News. “Everybody understands that we will not be able to repeal this law until 2017,” Needham said, a statement that seemed to contradict much of the pro-defund rhetoric leading up to and during the government shutdown.

“Are you kidding me?” Boehner wondered aloud.

Of course, leadership’s tense relationship with conservative groups long predates the shutdown that prompted anonymous House aides to launch colorful attacks on the groups and their Senate allies Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Mike Lee (R., Utah). Boehner’s right flank has scuttled nearly every major agreement he has tried to broker in this divided government, from the fiscal cliff earlier this year, to the first debt-ceiling showdown in August 2011.

Conservative groups reacted strongly to the speaker’s criticisms. “Speaker Boehner may not care about what fiscally conservative groups do, but grassroots Americans still care about what he’s doing in Washington,” FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe said in a statement. “When it comes to ‘credibility,’ actions speak louder than words. And right now, it looks like the speaker is leading the charge for spending increases and recruiting Democrat votes in the House to help get it done.”

Heritage Action defended itself against the specific charge that outside groups had opposed the deal ahead of its formal release, based solely on leaked details reported in the press. “The people who were very close to the deal knew we were going to be opposed, knew when we were going to come out and be critical of the framework. And we actually talked to them ahead of time and said, ‘Hey, are the press reports true? If not, tell us where they’re wrong and we’ll stand back,’” the group’s spokesman, Dan Holler, told NRO.

Conservative commentator and outspoken congressional-leadership critic Erick Erickson called Boehner’s outburst a “strategic” effort to establish an “us vs. them” narrative ahead of the 2014 primary season, and suggested that it marked “the first real shots” in the battle to push immigration reform through the House. “His temper tantrum today had very little to do with the present fight, but the next fight,” Erickson wrote. “Boehner needs to draw fence sitters to him, make conservative groups unpopular, and then dare the fence sitters to go sit with the unpopular crowd during the immigration fight. . . . And if he has to cry on television and attack his conservative base, he’ll do it.”

Representative Tim Huelskamp (R., Kan.), a long-time Boehner critic, tells NRO that House leaders were “shooting themselves in the foot” by “going after the folks that got [them] elected.” The move could prompt “furious” conservatives to mount primary challenges, or simply stay home rather than vote Republican, he says.

“They’ve got the people on their side,” Huelskamp says of groups such as Heritage Action. “The activists are with these groups. Why would you tell them to go fly a kite when they got you elected, and they can help you or hurt you in the next election? They are rightly upset about it.” 

Most of the criticism of the deal has focused on its rolling back the sequester spending cuts Republicans had been touting as one of their greatest accomplishments since retaking the House in 2010. Another major issue concerned the use of fee increases, rather than spending reductions elsewhere, to pay for the spending increases. Some accused Republicans of bowing to the will of the defense industry, which had been lobbying furiously to undo the sequester’s disproportionate cuts to the Pentagon.

“It’s one thing to say, boy, this is a bad deal, but we got to vote for it. But when you have them saying it’s a good deal, you should like it, that’s entirely different,” Huelskamp said.

One longtime conservative strategist likened the GOP infighting to the Iran–Iraq War: “You want both sides to lose.”

“The House and Senate leadership hasn’t laid out any clear sense of where they want to go, what they want to accomplish, or started framing issues that can be the centerpiece of a future GOP agenda,” the strategist says. “Instead, they’ve bumbled from one crisis to the next with nothing more than ‘trust us’ and plaintive pleas which sound a lot like ‘aw, come on guys, if you were my friend you’d do it.’”

Leadership’s opponents — the “slam your hand in the car door” caucus — were no better, the strategist argued. “God love some of these folks, but they have no earthly idea what they’re doing,” he said. “They’ve done one strategically stupid thing after another over the past year and now when they’re actually right on this budget deal, like the boy who cried wolf, no one takes them seriously because their credibility is shot.”

The Murray-Ryan deal now moves to the Senate, where it has already been met with considerable GOP opposition. Senators Ted Cruz, Jeff Flake, Marco Rubio, Jeff Sessions (the top Republican on the budget committee), and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have come out against the agreement. Even staunch defense hawks such as Kelly Ayotte and Lindsey Graham have said they plan to vote no.

Democrats will need at least five Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold for passage, which they’ll probably get. But it’s going to be close.

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.