There probably weren't any champagne bottles uncorked in the Capitol on Friday, but there's no question that House conservatives saw the arrival of automatic spending cuts known as the sequester as cause for celebration.
For fiscal hawks, these automatic cuts, while imperfect in design, represent the first significant spending reductions they have effected since arriving in Washington. Perhaps more important, the sequester represents a promise kept to them by House leadership, a show of solidarity that could strengthen the still-fragile relationship between leadership and the conservative wing of the conference.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, made a series of promises to conference members during their mid-January retreat in Williamsburg, Va. The first of these was to uphold the sequester (allowing, of course, for an alternative plan with equal cuts). Boehner extended this assurance, along with several others, in exchange for members approving a temporary extension of the debt limit.
This proposal was met with skepticism by conservative members of the House Republican Conference. Some rejected the debt-ceiling deal but walked away hoping Boehner would keep his promises; others agreed to the extension but openly doubted the speaker's ability to deliver on his end of the bargain. In either case, some conservatives spent the next six weeks expecting the automatic cuts to be delayed or undone — or both.
But late last week, as the reality that the sequester would happen sank in, many former skeptics began to sing a different tune.
"God bless our leadership," gushed Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who crossed the speaker last year when he lobbied conservatives against Boehner's debt-ceiling plan. With these spending cuts going into effect, Jordan said, "Conservatives in this House of Representatives are making a difference. And that's a complete change from what we saw in the last Congress."
What's especially encouraging for these members is the precedent set by Boehner's commitment to upholding the sequester. When Boehner made his promises at the Republican retreat, upholding the March 1 cuts was the first item on a chronological checklist that some members have labeled "The Williamsburg Accord." One of those members, Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, was so skeptical of leadership keeping its promises that he spent the final days before March 1 still half-expecting the House to cave.
"I talked to some conservatives [Monday] night, and we just never expected that we would even get to point one," Huelskamp said last week. "And here we are."
In other words, the first box has been checked off the conservative wish list. But it won't get any easier from here. The next three steps — passing a new continuing resolution with post-sequester spending levels, passing a budget that balances within a decade, and opposing any tax hikes during the next debt-limit debate — all are fraught with political peril for what remains a very fragile alliance.
Still, as Jordan pointed out, the second item on the conservative checklist already seems within reach. House aides say that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will accept the continuing resolution with lower spending levels, and President Obama suggested on Friday that he would sign it into law if it meant preventing a government shutdown. With the sequester under their belt, and their preferred funding bill poised to pass both chambers of Congress, that means conservatives could soon be two-for-two.
"If you had said that was going to happen two months ago, we would have said, 'no way,' " Jordan said. "But that's exactly where we're at."
In sports, it's often observed of divided locker rooms that "winning cures everything." Now, for the first time since Republicans took over the House in 2010, conservatives are confident that they are dictating the legislative tempo — and leadership is reaping the benefits of a united front. "We've got the Republican conference unified," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. "We finally have a plan, we have a vision.… If we can stick to this plan, I think the president is going to have a really hard time dividing us."
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., who was floated by some conservatives as a replacement for Boehner, said leadership has learned valuable lessons from the internal strife of the last Congress. "There's a lot of things that weren't done in the way that were the most productive in the 112th, and the leadership were the first people to admit that," Price said. "I think that they've done their level best to bring about a cohesive conference moving forward. And I don't have any reason to believe that they're not going to fulfill their word."
Even those reliably pessimistic members are showing signs of softening. "It's a first step," Huelskamp said with a smile.
This article appears in the March 4, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.