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.
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.