Politics & Policy

An RSC Divided

The Republican Study Committee is no longer a small, ragtag band of conservative lawmakers, as it has typically been since its founding in the 1970s. It has over 170 dues-paying members, a blessing and — as the debt-limit fight showed — perhaps a curse.

In the final days of the debt showdown, the RSC was divided, leading some to conclude it has become too big to serve its purpose as a cohesive, conservative counterbalance to the Republican leadership. RSC stalwarts such as Steve King (R., Iowa) are openly discussing a downsizing of the group. “Maybe some members will resign and step down,” he says. “There is nobody they’ll ask to leave; everybody has conviction. But if the positions are too strong for them, then they can leave. It would be a natural shift.”

The RSC seemed to be riding high when it was able to spook Speaker John Boehner, who for months appeared to be close to a “grand bargain” with President Obama. Throughout the negotiations, at closed-door conference meetings, RSC members pushed him to back “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” its own fiscal-reform package, and to reject the president’s nebulous framework. Eventually, the pressure paid off: “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” championed by Boehner, passed the House in mid-July and focused the bipartisan discussions on spending cuts.

Yet a week later, that victory was marred by internal stumbles. On July 27, at an early-morning House GOP confab, Paul Teller, a top RSC staffer, was berated by House Republicans for leaking cloakroom buzz to conservative activists. A few congressmen alleged that Teller and his staff sent e-mails to outside groups, such as Heritage Action and RedState, asking them to prod RSC members to back away from Boehner’s eleventh-hour proposal, which was unveiled after the Democratic Senate tabled “Cut, Cap, and Balance.” In front of colleagues, RSC members spat their disapproval, which many considered a breach of protocol. “Fire him!” chanted some congressmen, according to press reports.

The episode was an uncomfortable moment, especially for Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the RSC chairman. Teller and staff may have been getting cozy with conservative leaders — that was no surprise, and in background conversations RSC staffers do not deny the charge. The real drama, of course, was the broader argument between Jordan and Boehner over the direction of the party. The Teller complaints merely hinted at that divide. Jordan, a terse former state-champion wrestler, would not support a compromise, even as the clock ticked. Boehner, on the other hand, was looking to cut a deal in order to avoid potential economic trouble and political fallout.

For many lower-chamber Republicans, the scuffle was indicative of how even within a conservative House, tension and controversy remain, regardless of how many pizza parties House leaders host in the Capitol basement. It was also a long time coming: For months, the RSC has irked leadership, opposing the Boehner spending deal in April, for instance, and giving Boehner headaches on related issues. They even authored their own federal budget, which sat politically to the right of the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, who is considered by many to be the party’s leading deficit hawk.

The debt-limit bruises, aides predict, may take more time than past wounds to heal. These days — due to its size and no-holds-barred approach — when the RSC hits, it leaves a welt. In past decades, the RSC has never been this large or influential. Some sources say the current size of the caucus has made its message (and members) harder to control. Senior GOP staffers — some with RSC ties and others without — tell me that in the coming months, shrinking the group may not be a bad idea. Those who are uneasy with Jordan’s hardline positions could seek less raucous pastures, and the RSC could revert back to its rabblerousing roots — stirring civil wars within the Republican party, not managing them within its ranks.

King says that the Teller situation encouraged some wary RSC members to defend Boehner — right as Jordan was making his final, all-important effort to pull Boehner to the right. That hurt the RSC’s chances. “When you get up and challenge the speaker, it gives other members license to get up and challenge you,” King says. “That’s part of the equation that’s not being spoken about here.” When Jordan was called out by RSC members — albeit indirectly — his bargaining position was weakened. “It created a different dynamic,” King says. “The people in the conference looked at that and said, now there is license to go after [Jordan].”

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R., Texas), another longtime RSC member, agrees. “Smearing the members in an e-mail was not helpful,” he says. But it was more than a stray listserv memo that caused problems. “There was never a vote in the RSC about what the RSC’s position would be on the Boehner bill,” he says. So when staffers began to softly whip the vote, an internal revolt was to be expected. “We had a discussion, but we never had a vote, so there was no official RSC position,” Gohmert says. The large caucus, he adds, knew that “Cut, Cap, and Balance” was the RSC plan, but beyond that, things were less certain, with proposal after proposal being floated. Looking ahead, “I don’t know if it could ever get too big, but it has probably moderated as it has grown,” he says.

Jordan, in an interview at the Capitol, is quick to acknowledge that his staff mishandled their communications. But the RSC, he says, remains united despite the incessant rumors of GOP bickering. “That was wrong, and I didn’t know they went out,” he says in reference to the e-mails. Still, he says, “Our push was never about getting my way; our push has been for ‘Cut, Cap, and Balance.’ That has always been our focus.” Freshman Rep. James Lankford (R., Okla.) adds that any read on the past few weeks beyond that is gossip over what he calls a “subplot” and “behind-the-scenes drama” that is “hanging out there but not significant.”

“I remember sparks flying more than once,” says Rep. Mike Pence (R., Ind.), a former RSC chairman, of his own tenure. The Jordan–Boehner flap, he notes, is nothing new and part of Jordan’s job. Pushing a speaker or party leader, he says, is never easy and always contentious, with staffs battling and members nervous about taking things too far. In recent days, “I do believe there were errors made by RSC staff,” he says. “But I am confident that they will be addressed. And I really do believe that staff errors notwithstanding, Jim Jordan is doing an outstanding and courageous job.”

Jordan, for his part, mostly shrugs off the chatter about his rivalry with Boehner. An Ohio newspaper did report that Jordan could be redistricted by Boehner allies in the state house for bucking the speaker, but Boehner’s spokesman quickly shot down the story. Nonetheless, as with the Teller brouhaha, the chatter around that article fueled conservative suspicions.

“The speaker has got his job to do,” Jordan says flatly, when asked about Boehner’s leadership. The men, for the moment, are not particularly fond of each other’s maneuvers. But, for what it’s worth, they do share a challenge: herding House Republicans.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

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