Republican House freshmen like to say they shifted the agenda in Washington from how much to spend to how much to cut. But just because these 89 newcomers have a common goal doesn’t mean they are a monolithic voting bloc.
The tangled voting in September on a routine stopgap spending bill showed three emerging types of freshmen: those who line up behind the party’s leaders; those whom party leaders can convince to line up; and those whom they can’t. For GOP leaders to be successful in the upcoming budget battles—now that Democrats have proven that they can withhold all of their votes—House Speaker John Boehner will need to make sure that the members of the first two groups vastly outnumber the third’s.
Boehner may yet herd his fractious freshmen into a cohesive majority, but he certainly didn’t on Sept. 21. Eighteen newbie lawmakers, along with 30 other GOP House members, helped to defeat a compromise short-term spending bill despite Boehner’s warning that they would effectively be voting “to spend more money, because that’s exactly what will happen.”
Boehner was right. Instead of passing a bill he supported, which offset at least $1.5 billion in added money for disaster assistance, Congress eventually passed one that had no offsets at all. Worse yet for Republican hard-liners, the outcome may reinforce the old practice of not bothering to offset the cost of disaster-aid bills in the future.
Like a slugger who promised a sick child he would hit a home run, many of the freshmen were dead set on swinging for the fences while the party veterans were calling for a sacrifice bunt.
“I realized they went beyond the budget we promised,” Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., said when asked why he voted against the last three continuing resolutions. Schweikert said he isn’t dissatisfied with the final outcome, even though Congress ultimately spent more than it would have if all Republicans had supported earlier versions of the spending bill.
“I may have voted no, but I’m very happy with what we achieved,” he said. In other words, “good enough” just doesn’t cut it when it comes to his vote.
That puts Schweikert in the “can’t convince” camp along with nine other Republican freshmen; they include Justin Amash, R-Mich.; Joe Walsh, R-Ill.; and Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. All of them voted against the next iteration of the continuing resolution, even though it contained even more offsets than the first one.
With more budget battles just around the corner, GOP leaders need their members to stick together to avoid more defeats at the hands of surprisingly unified House Democrats. One strategy would be to move further to the right, but that would only get bills out of the House while making it even harder to get anything through the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House.
In the past, the leadership could scare or bribe freshmen into toeing the line, but not today. With earmarks now prohibited, there aren’t any carrots, and freshman lawmakers say that Boehner isn’t wielding any sticks either.
“I can’t afford to sit around and try to consider the consequences for every vote I make, so I don’t,” Tim Scott, R-S.C., a freshman-class liaison to leadership, told National Journal. “Most of us aren’t really people who are enamored with position or committee assignments, or need to raise funds. Threats about such things would probably not be all that effective.”
Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., who switched from a no to a yes on the spending bill after the addition of more offsets, said that Boehner never discussed fundraising or future campaigns behind closed doors.
Such threats could backfire anyway: There may be no better way for Republican lawmakers to raise money on their own than to tell the ultra-rich tea party fundraising machines that they stood up to a Washington-entrenched leadership and were punished for it. To tea party activists, they would be heroes who deserved to be defended.
Without a ready stockpile of carrots or sticks, the House Republican leadership may have only one choice: lengthy one-on-ones with freshman lawmakers.
“It’s a novel concept called ‘educating,’ ” said Scott, who gave leadership fits during the debt-ceiling negotiations but voted for the most-recent spending bills. “It doesn’t happen very often in politics, but educating us and informing us about the game plan can go a long way to getting votes.”
These closed-door sessions may have helped flip the eight GOP freshmen who came around and lined up behind leadership after the Sept. 21 debacle. Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia, the freshman-class president, thinks more of his class will do the same in the near future.
“Maybe this was a learning experience for the caucus, and you’ll see our caucus rally more around the speaker than before,” he said. “He is the speaker of the House, and we want him to succeed. We need to be able to deliver 218 votes for him.”
One possible sign of Boehner’s success at herding is the change of heart by Rep. Allen West, the Florida firebrand who came into the House with as strong an independent streak as anyone. West voted against two stopgap spending bills, but he changed his tune during the debt-ceiling negotiations.
Suddenly he went from an obstinate passenger to being “ready to drive the car” on behalf of leadership.
“You just can’t leave your fellow comrade on the battlefield,” said West, who served in Iraq before running for Congress.
West said it’s widely understood that certain members of his class just won’t be swayed. But if Boehner and the other House GOP leaders could convince him to fall in line, they may eventually get his pugnacious classmates to do so as well.
This article appears in the October 8, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.