Aides say party leaders favored a cautious, more long-term approach to the federal budget, not wanting to reach too far, too fast on spending cuts. Also, they could explain the discrepancy: They noted that the fiscal year was already halfway through, and that the continuing resolution passed during the lame-duck session was already $40 billion below Obama’s request. All things considered, they argued, Republicans were “technically” on track to fulfill their pledge. “If anyone thinks we’re afraid to cut $100 billion they got another think coming,” Ryan said in response to critics.
Nevertheless, this did not sit well with new members, not least because Ryan’s announcement coincided with a district work period, and many found themselves confronted by angry constituents demanding to know what had happened to the $100 billion figure. “Technically” fulfilling a pledge just didn’t cut it.
Freshmen weren’t the only ones brimming with dissent. Veteran members of the conservative Republican Study Committee, led by Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio), had politely warned party leaders in a letter to stick to the $100 billion, regardless of extenuating circumstances. And no sooner did Ryan announce his $58 billion plan than Jordan began drafting an amendment to cut an additional $42 billion.
Thus, when members of Congress returned to Capitol Hill on February 7, the stage was set for an intramural showdown. Rep. Hal Rogers (Ky.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, was in the final stages of drafting a seven-month spending resolution that would cut non-defense spending by $58 billion. But in a defiant move, Reps. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), a perennial fiscal hawk, and Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.) voted against the bill in committee, demanding further cuts.
Tensions boiled over into a closed-door conference meeting the next day, where members had what one source described as a “very respectful, but also very blunt” discussion about the need to remain true to the Pledge and cut a full $100 billion. Flake rallied members to his side by arguing that “if you’re explaining things after the fact, you’re probably losing the battle.”
Boehner and company heard that message loud and clear, but had clearly been caught on their heels. Into the sudden disarray stepped Rep. Tom Graves (Ga.), an Appropriations Committee member and self-described “freshman in spirit,” having won office in a June 2010 special election. Graves made the most of his unique standing within the party to help bring the leadership and the freshmen to an agreement. He convened a series of meetings with new members in his office, where he gave them a rundown of the appropriations process and gradually built a consensus to get to $100 billion in cuts — before the amendment process would begin. “We knew this was going to be the opening kickoff to a long season,” Graves said. “The thinking was: ‘Let’s kick it deep and start off with the strongest field position we can.’”
That afternoon, he brought that message of a unified freshman class to a meeting with Republican leaders, with whom he had already established relationships as a result of his six-month head start. “I told them: ‘We’ve got to get to $100 billion if we want this CR to pass,’” Graves says. “That’s what these freshmen want.”