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John Boehner’s Prisoner’s Dilemma

House freshmen force the speaker into an unenviable space.

Boehner: Walking a thin line.(Johnathan Ernst/Getty Images)

photo of Reid Wilson
March 16, 2011

Remember this as the week the freshman class of House Republicans had enough. And their frustration is about to prove beneficial to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

After two months in office, freshman members are beginning to grumble that GOP leaders are moving too slowly in cutting spending. Though a stopgap funding measure passed with more than three-quarters of the freshman class voting in favor, the chorus of conservative discontent is growing.

Only 20 of the 87 freshman Republicans voted against the continuing resolution. But in private, many junior lawmakers say they will not back another one.


In public, Republicans are blaming the Democratic Senate, which they say has not brought spending proposals to the negotiating table.

“The American people for far too long have been demanding that Washington be forthright, and seeing the same Senate games going on with budget gimmickry and stall tactics, my constituents are saying, ‘Look, it’s time to put this behind us. Let’s fund the government for the rest of the year,’ “ said Rep. Tom Graves, a Georgia Republican elected to his first full term in November. “The American people deserve better from the Senate. They have literally offered nothing.”

Graves joined 53 GOP colleagues in voting against the continuing resolution. During a contentious House Republican Conference meeting on Tuesday, GOP leaders urged their members to vote for the bill, while conservatives—including former conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana—railed against it. That led Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California to challenge Pence: “I’m voting to cut $6 billion,” McCarthy said. “How much are you voting to cut?”

But Pence’s position is gaining followers. In private, many freshman Republicans are telling the House leadership that they will vote against another continuing resolution once funding runs out on April 8.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has not ruled out another continuing resolution, said his spokesman, Michael Steel, although he hopes a third short-term extension isn’t required as negotiations with the Senate continue. And Republican leaders have made the impassioned case to their conference that the spending cuts included in the first two resolutions are concrete victories.

“This may be winning in slow motion, but it’s winning,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who voted for the bill. “Boehner is doing exactly the right thing. He’s keeping us on the right course, and he’s keeping the government open while he’s cutting spending.”

Some Republicans worry that the growing discord among freshmen will strengthen Democrats’ hand. Republicans could not muster the 218 votes they needed to pass the resolution on a party-line vote; they needed the help of at least 32 Democrats for passage and eventually attracted 85. But if Boehner is forced to offer another resolution, he will presumably do so with additional funding cuts, and each new cut threatens to cost him Democratic votes. If the speaker cannot muster the support for an additional resolution on his own side, he may be forced to make concessions to Democrats, which would only alienate more Republicans.

As the freshman class digs in, it increases the prospect of forcing a government shutdown. So far, Republicans have been wary of a shutdown, pointing out that Democrats are the only ones bringing it up.

“I don’t see it coming to [a government shutdown] at all. No one from our perspective wants to see the government shut down at all,” Graves said.

However, the possibility lurks just below the surface. The Democratic Senate shows few signs of allowing the massive cuts that Republicans have proposed. The Republican freshmen have no inclination to back away from their mission of slashing funding. Meanwhile, Boehner’s predicament is becoming more precarious.

Boehner has always faced a legislative version of the prisoner’s dilemma. The freshman class came to Washington to cut spending, but the fact remains that Republicans control just one lever of government. Boehner must negotiate not only with a Democratic Senate that has rejected the deep cuts House Republicans first proposed; he also has to placate a base that is neither accustomed to nor happy with the staid pace of business in Washington.

So far, the speaker has walked that line expertly. Several freshmen with prior legislative experience have marveled at Boehner’s ability to convince new members that his priorities are theirs and that he is letting the rookies call the shots.

But voting against the continuing resolution is an alluring way for some members to appear more conservative than the GOP leadership, an appealing prospect in the age of the tea party. Those who have been in Washington longer, and who have seen the process work, are cautioning against taking that path, no matter how attractive it seems.

“It’s easy to make yourself look good at the team’s expense. But as a rule, if you’re voting with Nancy Pelosi, you’re probably not voting the right way. I’d rather vote with the Republican leader,” Cole said. “Some of our members sometimes forget we don’t control the United States Senate and we don’t control the presidency.”

House Republican freshmen came to Washington to challenge the status quo. At times, that will mean challenging their own leadership, whether the leadership sees those challenges as politically prudent or not. The battle over funding the government marks the first time that the freshman class, in concert with more-veteran conservatives such as Pence, has truly drawn a line in the sand.

This article appears in the March 17, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.

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