And with the 2012 campaign season starting to heat up, the caucus is likely to drift farther (and more obstinately) to the right. Not only are members wary of a potential primary challenge from the Tea Party, but the redistricting efforts in some states have pitted GOP incumbents against one another. In either scenario, members are feeling pressured to shore up their conservative bona fides. In the 112th Congress, that has often meant voting against leadership, or in the case of Rep. Joe Walsh (R., Ill.), openly criticizing them.
Walsh, a freshman who has defied leadership on practically every major piece of legislation to pass the House, is facing five-term congressman Randy Hultgren (R., Ill.) in a GOP primary. Not surprisingly, both voted against the House spending resolution both times. But Walsh, as he often does, went one step farther, offering choice words for Republican leaders at a recent Tea Party convention in Illinois. “John Boehner is a great guy. Eric Cantor’s a great guy. They’re good folks who [want] the best for this country,” he said. “The problem is, they’ve been here too long, and they’re afraid to fight for this country.”
On the other hand, there are plenty of House Republicans who would like to avoid this political gamesmanship. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.), for example, opposed the first version of the spending bill, but voted with leadership the second time around. Rohrabacher said at a closed-door conference meeting that he regretted his “no” vote, explaining that he did so out of fear of tea-party criticism back home and calling it “cowardly.”
Rep. Steve Womack (R., Ark.), a freshman on the Appropriations Committee, described the meeting at which Rohrabacher made his comments as good for the party. With Democrats sensing weakness on the Republican side, Womack said that members came to realize the value of unity. It’s simple math, as President Obama would say: Fewer Republican votes means more Democratic votes are required for passage, and more Democratic votes inevitably equals higher spending. Womack says that he respects Flake’s opinion, and while every Republican wanted deeper cuts in the Budget Control Act, “that was the deal that was cut.”
“When you play a team sport, and the coach makes a decision, you may not agree with the decision, but you know for the greater good of the team you’ve got to go out and support that decision,” he told National Review Online. “I think what happened in this case is that some of the people who voted ‘no’ turned around and felt they didn’t serve their team well by allowing their team to take a loss, when it should have been a victory.”
“There wasn’t, to me, a real strong argument as to why you should stand your principled ground right now and allow this thing to involve the shutdown of the government,” he added. “I just don’t think anybody wins in that.”
Indeed, those hoping to avoid the possibility of a government shutdown scored a small victory over the recess when no dissenting members opted to fly back to Washington to object to a unanimous-consent agreement on a Senate-passed stop-gap measure to fund the government until Congress returned this week. If anything, this proved that there are limits to the lengths that members are willing to go to state their objections.
The House will vote this afternoon on the Democratic-led Senate’s full version of the spending legislation. It is virtually identical to the House-passed bill, except that a $1 billion “emergency” allocation for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been stripped out, as were the spending offsets Republicans had proposed to pay for it. FEMA announced that it no longer required the additional funding, though the spending offsets — cuts to the federal loans program that helped finance Solyndra, for example — were crucial to winning Republican votes. However, as much as conservative members may loathe the final package, the compromise will inevitably allow a sizeable faction of them to vote against leadership once again. The bill is expected to pass, as more Democrats will be inclined to support it this time around. But the GOP remains divided, and as recent events have shown, Speaker Boehner will have his hands full in the coming months.
— Andrew Stiles is the Franklin Center’s 2011 Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow.