Conservatives celebrated when Arizona representative Jeff Flake (R.) won a slot on the appropriations committee, and they haven’t been disappointed. But no one in the GOP leadership is sending him any flowers.
Flake exemplifies an ongoing rift among House Republicans — between conservatives determined to drive a hard bargain on federal spending and a leadership-aligned majority more inclined to compromise — that shows no signs of being resolved any time soon.
From the fiscal-year-2011 funding showdown in April to the more recent negotiations over the debt ceiling and fiscal-year-2012 spending levels, a resolute bunch of between 40 and 60 House conservatives has consistently made life difficult for House speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio).
Most recently, on September 21, 48 House Republicans joined all but six Democrats in rejecting a continuing resolution to set spending levels for fiscal year 2012 and fund the government through November 18, dealing an embarrassing blow to party leaders, who had hoped to avoid “unnecessary“ conflict in the wake of the often harrowing debt-ceiling negotiations.
Those negotiations had yielded the Budget Control Act, which established spending levels for each of the next ten years. Sixty-six Republicans voted against it, arguing that it didn’t go far enough to address the nation’s debt problem. Still, House leadership was content to abide by those levels with respect to fiscal-year-2012 funding. House majority leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) urged members to follow suit in a memo shortly following passage of the Budget Control Act.
“While all of us would like to have seen a lower discretionary appropriations ceiling for the upcoming fiscal year, the debt-limit agreement did set a level of spending that is a real cut from the current year level,” he wrote. “I believe it is in our interest to enact into law full-year appropriations bills at this new lower level.”
But House conservatives would not abide. Prior to the failed spending vote, Flake gathered the signatures of 50 of his colleagues on a letter to party leaders urging them to set 2012 funding not at the levels agreed to in the debt-ceiling talks, but rather at the levels outlined in the House budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.).
“What kind of a message does it send to taxpayers when the House actually increases spending as a result of the debt deal?” Flake said. “The spending limits established in the debt deal were meant to be a ceiling, not a floor.”
Apparently, Flake’s appeal had more pull than Cantor’s, as 15 Republicans who had voted for the Budget Control Act voted against the continuing resolution.
One day after the initial vote failed, however, GOP leaders managed to corral the necessary votes on a second, slightly amended spending bill. But the debacle had already stirred up painful memories of the April budget showdown, not to mention the recent debt-ceiling talks, which saw some House conservatives willing to push the negotiations up to, or even past, the brink of a government “shutdown” in their determination to take a stand on federal spending. The failed vote embodied precisely the sort of “unnecessary uncertainty” that leadership had sought to avoid.
According to a number of reports and conversations with House aides, Boehner was especially frustrated by the initial failed vote. Some aides speculate that the speaker may be more inclined to abandon the amiable leadership style that has thus far characterized his tenure in an effort to “make a statement” that “unhelpful” dissent will not be tolerated.
But the dissent continues. Flake and fellow House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R., Wyo.) have both objected to a pending bill that would provide funding for labor, health, and education programs. The legislation would, among other things, cut off federal funding for National Public Radio and Planned Parenthood, as well as rescind all funding for Obamacare until the new law’s legal challenges have been resolved. Those measures are popular among conservatives, but Flake and Lummis insist that appropriators adhere to the spending levels in the Ryan budget, rather than those in the Budget Control Act. This certainly does not bode well for those hoping to avoid another messy fight (or several) over federal spending.