Paul Ryan has long demonstrated a rare ability to bring Republicans together, as exemplified by several near-unanimous GOP votes for his controversial budget proposals.
But on Wednesday, Ryan accomplished something equally unusual—splintering a group of core House conservatives who typically vote as a unit.
"Good conservatives can disagree on this," Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, said Wednesday afternoon.
And indeed they did. Wednesday saw ideological alliances put on pause as conservative House members found themselves on opposite sides of the debate over Ryan's budget compromise with Sen. Patty Murray. Some leaders of the GOP's right flank supported the deal, and others were against it, while many remained noncommittal and struggled to choose sides.
One person who wasn't bothered by the schism was Ryan himself, who told National Journal Daily that his deal has enough votes to pass the House, regardless of conservative defections.
"I feel good about where we are. We understand there are members who won't support it. That's the nature of bipartisan agreements," Ryan said. "For me, what matters is keeping our principles intact, moving the process forward in a constructive way, and preventing government shutdowns."
The day started with a major whip-counting victory for Ryan. As the House Budget chairman prepared to address his colleagues in a morning conference meeting, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., Ryan's close friend and vice chairman of the Budget Committee, issued a statement endorsing the budget agreement.
"It is increasingly obvious that success—particularly in divided government—has to be measured in positive steps, not leaps and bounds," Price said.
The endorsement from Price, though not entirely surprising given his relationship with Ryan, was critical. Price is viewed by his peers as among the most respected members of the House GOP, and he enjoys tremendous credibility among conservatives as a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee. If Price wouldn't support Ryan's plan, what conservative would?
It wasn't long, however, until another equally influential right-wing Republican issued a rebuttal to Price. At a morning forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, Jordan, another former RSC chairman, announced his opposition to the budget agreement.
"Eleven months ago, our conference made a decision ... that we will not get rid of the sequester unless and until we get the kind of big savings in mandatory programs that put our nation on a path to balance in 10 years," Jordan said. "That was always the goal."
Jordan noted that Ryan's deal "has some positives," but he called it a "marked departure" from the agreement House Republicans made back in January at their retreat in Williamsburg, Va.
Others on the panel agreed. Reps. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., and Tom McClintock, R-Calif., all expressed their opposition. So did Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a Ryan ally who echoed Jordan's point about Williamsburg before concluding: "It's really a terrible plan."
Not everyone at the forum was opposed. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said she was "leaning yes" because the deal would blunt sequestration's impact on the military. And Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said that she was still undecided.
The panel as a whole was overwhelmingly against Ryan's plan. But Mulvaney warned not to extrapolate from that small sample. "We're hard-core up here," he said afterwards, suggesting that some House conservatives were voting the other way, while others remained undecided.
Ryan was already on top of that. Not long after the forum concluded, the RSC convened its weekly gathering in the Capitol basement. As Ryan strode confidently toward the meeting room, he previewed his pitch to the group of more than 170 House Republicans, many of whom were on the fence.
"We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Ryan said he planned to tell them.
Specifically, Ryan tailored his talk to the RSC crowd by driving home a harsh reality: The conservative alternative to his budget deal—a continuing resolution funding the government at sequester levels—would never receive enough votes to pass the House. Too many military-minded Republicans would defect, he said, and Democrats, wary of sequestration's domestic impact, would not pick up the slack.
This budget deal, Ryan told conservatives, is their best option.
Ryan's message proved effective. Several RSC members said afterwards that they were leaning toward supporting the plan, despite criticisms that it rids the GOP of sequestration, its greatest legislative leverage.
"That was a concern for me—that we not trade sequester for anything but more savings or real entitlement reform," said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, a well-respected veteran conservative. "But as I've studied it, I'm confident that the savings are real. ... It's impressive."
By day's end, there was no clear movement in any one direction. Some key conservatives were for the bill, and others were against it, while many others—including RSC Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana, and Reps. Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Tom Graves of Georgia—remained neutral.
Most House Republicans, regardless of preference, predicted the budget agreement will pass when the House votes on Thursday. The greater intrigue, some conservatives said, may be in determining how many of their ideological allies wind up on the opposing side of the legislative battlefield.
"Let's face it—it's not great, and it's not terrible," Graves said of the budget deal, laughing. "That makes for a difficult decision. And each and every member will have to make that decision on their own."
This article appears in the December 12, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.