They dared not celebrate an obvious defeat, and nobody was suggesting a moral victory. But after weeks of waging a multifront battle—against the White House, Senate Democrats, and centrists in their own conference—House conservatives emerged from Washington’s fiscal impasse both unhappy with the outcome and fortified by the fight.
As Congress moved Wednesday toward approving a deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, both on a temporary basis, conservative members of the House Republican Conference sounded bittersweet.
This was not the conclusion they had envisioned: funding the government through Jan. 15 and raising the debt ceiling through Feb. 7 in exchange for a promise of protracted negotiation over long-term fiscal issues. They wanted to defund President Obama’s health care law, or at least delay implementation. They wanted to cut mandatory spending and put reforms in place to balance the budget in 10 years.
Conservatives didn’t notch those policy victories. Not even close. And some argue the next round of fiscal fighting will be even tougher sledding for House Republicans after suffering such a high-profile defeat.
“I’m going to commit candor here: I think we have less leverage on the next [continuing resolution] and on the next debt limit than we did right now,” said freshman Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky.
But what they did gain, members say, is the experience of enduring a tough, pressure-packed showdown that saw warring elements of the House Republican Conference come together.
“If we can carry over that newfound unity, I think this exercise will actually have been quite useful,” said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz. “It will help us prepare for the fights that are left on the table.”
Indeed, Salmon said conservatives relayed that message to Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Wednesday afternoon when House Republicans gathered in advance of a final vote. Rather than scorn the speaker for bringing the unpopular Senate bill to the House floor, Republicans—including those who opposed the measure—gave Boehner a standing ovation.
“I’m proud of the men and women that I serve with,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., one of the conservatives who instigated the anti-Obamacare push earlier this year. “And I’m just as proud of our speaker now as I have been over the last three weeks.”
With the outcome no longer in doubt and the next round of negotiations looming only months away, House Republicans sounded eager on Wednesday to put the battles of recent weeks behind them. Earlier in the afternoon, the conservative Republican Study Committee met in the Capitol basement, and, in a rare move, removed staffers from the session so that lawmakers could have a more candid discussion.
In that meeting—which Salmon likened to “group therapy”—RSC Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana was overheard emphasizing “the limits of our power.” That message, lawmakers said afterward, was useful for reminding constituents, and each other, that not every battle worth fighting can be won.
“I think most of us knew that the president was never going to give up his firstborn: Obamacare,” said Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich. “We knew that we had to take some votes in order to make sure that the people who elected us—and they did elect us—saw us push back. But, as I’ll try to explain to the people in my district, there’s only so much we can do with one House.”
Walberg added: “We’re still going to fight. And I think we have a lot to share about what we’ve done as a result of that fighting.”
Indeed, while pained to admit defeat, plenty of Republicans were eager to reflect on the positives they are taking away from this episode.
“I think we’ll learn lessons from this. Fifty-four percent of our conference has served less than 35 months here,” said Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., a sophomore conservative and junior member on Boehner’s team. “So we are very forward-looking, and very appreciative of the way our leadership has unified us.”
Other young conservatives were less optimistic, however. What their colleagues view as a learning experience, they see as yet another example of kicking the can down the road.
“We hear this a lot: ‘Live to fight another day.’ But we’re running out of time,” said Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., who is serving his second term in the House. “We’re $17 trillion in debt, with record unemployment. We’re at a turning point in our nation’s history.... And we were sent up here to do a job.”
Still, amid a day of defeat for House Republicans, many members were in search of a silver lining.
For Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a leader among the conservative class of 2010, the positive takeaway is a tactical one. Boehner’s leadership team, he said, has found the winning formula to effectively combat Washington’s Democratic majority—if they decide to use it.
“When leadership follows the conservative wing of the party, the conference is unified—we can get up to 230 votes every single time,” Labrador said. “I think if they continue to follow this blueprint, we’ll be very successful.”
Conservatives made it clear they had no intention of stepping back and preparing for some far-off fight. Instead, many sounded ready to pick up Thursday where they left off Wednesday.
“The president has said repeatedly over the last couple of weeks, ‘I’m happy to sit down and negotiate with them on cutting spending, on fixing Obamacare, but not during a government shutdown,’ ” Salmon said. “Well, tomorrow, we’ll see if he means what he said.”
This article appears in the October 17, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Lessons In Loss.