Republicans finished out a rough week with a critical display of party unity on Friday afternoon. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget proposal — to cut $5.8 trillion from the deficit over the next decade and boldly reform Medicare and Medicaid — was passed with near conference-wide support.
The final tally was 253–193 in favor of adoption, with every Democrat in opposition, but only four Republicans: Walter Jones (N.C.), Ron Paul (Texas), Denny Rehberg (Mont.), and freshman David McKinley (W.Va.).
Lawmakers fled the Capitol immediately following the vote, as Congress begins a two-week recess for the Easter holiday, but they left in good spirits.
Ryan tells National Review Online that the vote “shatters conventional Beltway wisdom” about the new Republican majority. “There is a remarkable sense of unity in this conference, as evidenced by the vote,” he says. “This budget represents the most optimistic vision of this country’s future ever put forward by either party — a budget that affirms the exceptional promise of our nation.”
Indeed, for Republicans, and for party leadership in particular, it was a promising departing note following a rather inauspicious last few days that began with new revelations about the “continuing resolution” that was recently negotiated by House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), and the White House.
Many Republicans initially hailed that spending dealas “historic,” as it was touted to contain almost $40 billion in spending cuts. However, analysis from the Congressional Budget Office analysis deemed the actual saving to be much less — it was full of number-inflating gimmicks. The revelation caused a stir within the party this week, especially since a number of members weren’t all that pleased with the deal to begin with. By Thursday afternoon, when the CR came up for a vote, 59 Republicans broke with party leaders.
The drama roiled the conference as the Ryan vote neared. But House leadership was not too worried about breaks in the ranks, according to aides. Sources close to leadership tell NRO that the whipping operation for the CR was more open-ended than many think, that Republicans wanted the Ryan budget to be the “takeaway” of the week. Says one aide, “everyone spoke up on the CR, but the Ryan budget is what we are focused on looking ahead; it is something we need to be united on. The CR was a bipartisan deal, done with Democrats, so we knew some would drop off from it.”
But the Ryan budget was this week’s keystone. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) told reporters outside the House chamber Friday that the vote marked the culmination of months of preparation and hard work, beginning with the “Budget 101” listening sessions he and Ryan organized to educate and gather input from freshman members at the outset of the budget-drafting process.
McCarthy praised the passage of the Ryan budget as a victory for a “new style” of GOP leadership. “Budgets are the hardest things to pass in Congress, you’re always told, and look what just transpired,” he said. “If you prepared ahead of time, you’re in a better position. With the CR, everything is happening right then. Here, members all had input from the very beginning.”
But the CR wasn’t the only hiccup along the way. Earlier in the day, Republicans narrowly averted embarrassment over a vote on an alternative budget proposal offered by the conservative Republican Study Committee.
In a display of parliamentary gamesmanship, nearly every House Democrat voted “present,” leaving it to divided Republicans to determine the budget’s fate. A flustered GOP leadership rushed to gavel the vote shut as lawmakers shouted at each other across the chamber. Several Republicans changed their votes from “yea” to “nay” at the last minute. In the end, the vote failed 119–136, with Republicans split 119–120.
And that was only a hint of the simmering tensions within the caucus. Earlier Friday, House Republicans met for a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill. In background conversations with NRO, numerous members called it “tense” and “animated,” and said that Speaker Boehner opened up the floor for comments. Echoing Rep. Allen West’s Thursday remarks, one congressman called the ensuing exchanges a “come-to-Jesus moment for the entire conference.”
High-profile conservatives such as Louie Gohmert (R., Texas) and Steve King (R., Iowa) spoke, but the underlying topic of conservation was Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.), a potential presidential candidate, whom a handful of members alluded to for her media-savvy opposition to the leadership, and for stirring, along with others, public divisions. One longtime conservative grandee of the House told me that he has never seen the conference simmer in such a fashion, and that things got icy quiet when King defended Bachmann and when various members boosted Boehner, all eyeing each other before reacting.
Bachmann spoke twice, calmly defending her views and actions as principled and founded upon her desire to repeal Obamacare and tangle with the president’s agenda, sources say. Geoff Davis (R., Ky.) and Jon Runyan (R., N.J.) also reportedly spoke, urging a more united public front as the conference headed toward the budget vote. But the anger with leadership among some on the right was palpable.
By late Friday afternoon, however, the heated conference meeting seemed to have had a positive impact on caucus relations, as did the tumultuous week of legislating. One GOP member said that it was “good to have fleshed everything out, to get all of that out there.” Freshman Alan Nunnelee (R., Miss.) added that the session was a “very healthy” affair. “I come from a very large family,” he chuckled. “We meet together all the time and you’ve got to be able to speak frankly in your family meetings.”
So by 2 p.m., when the slightly weary House convened to vote on Ryan’s budget, Republicans were in better spirits. Ryan settled in behind the podium on the House floor to make his closing argument, to the cheers of Republicans and boos, often quite loud, from Democrats. “To govern is to choose,” he said. “We are making a choice, even if we don’t act. And that is the wrong choice. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: ‘We cannot escape history. We of this Congress, and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves.’”
“Will this be remembered as the Congress that did nothing as the nation sped toward a preventable debt crisis and irreversible decline?” Ryan asked. “Or will it instead be remembered as the Congress that did the hard work of preventing that crisis — the one that chose this path to prosperity?”
Republicans closely watched Ryan’s closing remarks as the clock ticked and gave him a standing ovation. When the gavel hit and called a vote, nearly the entire House GOP lined up behind the Ryan plan. The ghosts of the spending-deal battle, and the morning bull session, were gone, if but for a moment.
— Andrew Stiles and Robert Costa report for NRO in Washington.