Budget Vote Proves House GOP Can’t Do Anything Big in 2014

Overcoming the Goldilocks complex could be tough in an election year.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Chairman of the House Budget Committee, presents his budget plan during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 12, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
April 16, 2014, 3:31 p.m.

Last week’s budget vote demon­strated why House Re­pub­lic­ans are un­likely to ac­com­plish any­thing sig­ni­fic­ant on the le­gis­lat­ive front in 2014.

The House GOP this elec­tion year is suf­fer­ing from something of a Goldilocks com­plex, in which some mem­bers dis­miss any giv­en pro­pos­al as too hot, and oth­ers com­plain it’s too cold, while only a shrink­ing ma­jor­ity say it’s just right. To pass any­thing without Demo­crat­ic sup­port, Re­pub­lic­ans have pre­cious little mar­gin for er­ror and must strike a bal­ance to sat­is­fy mem­bers on both sides of the party’s ideo­lo­gic­al di­vide.

They achieved it in passing Rep. Paul Ry­an’s fisc­al blue­print — but barely.

The an­nu­al budget vote has largely been an un­event­ful af­fair since Re­pub­lic­ans took back the ma­jor­ity in 2011. In fact, the pro­pos­als put forth by Ry­an, eas­ily the most pop­u­lar and well-re­spec­ted Re­pub­lic­an in the House, have rep­res­en­ted is­lands of con­sensus amid wa­ters churned by in­tern­al strife. GOP law­makers have largely set aside ideo­lo­gic­al battles and ral­lied around Ry­an’s ef­forts, which are gov­ern­ing blue­prints that achieve the party’s goal of bal­an­cing the budget.

This time was dif­fer­ent. A re­cord num­ber of Re­pub­lic­ans — 12 — voted against Ry­an’s pro­pos­al, and the op­pos­i­tion came from all corners of the party. Some mod­er­ates thought it slashed too much spend­ing; some con­ser­vat­ives thought it didn’t cut enough; oth­ers voted against it for a vari­ety of polit­ic­al or ideo­lo­gic­al pur­poses.

On top of that, a bloc of con­ser­vat­ives were temp­ted to join the op­pos­i­tion to send a mes­sage to GOP lead­er­ship about a man­euver — some called it “sneaky” — to pass a con­tro­ver­sial bill by voice vote weeks earli­er. Had only sev­en more GOP mem­bers de­fec­ted, Ry­an’s budget would have been de­feated on the House floor, and Re­pub­lic­ans would have gone home for the two-week East­er re­cess em­bar­rassed and fa­cing fresh spec­u­la­tion about a shakeup in lead­er­ship.

Iron­ic­ally, dis­aster was aver­ted when some of the con­fer­ence’s most re­li­able “no” votes wound up sup­port­ing the budget, edging a vic­tory for Ry­an (and GOP lead­er­ship). Law­makers like Justin Amash of Michigan, Joe Bar­ton of Texas, and Tim Huel­skamp of Kan­sas, all of whom had voted against pre­vi­ous it­er­a­tions of the Ry­an budget, sup­por­ted this year’s ver­sion.

Still, the epis­ode laid bare the chal­lenges GOP lead­er­ship faces in at­tempt­ing to pass any­thing of sig­ni­fic­ance this year. With no Demo­crat­ic sup­port ex­pec­ted for ma­jor GOP pro­pos­als, Re­pub­lic­ans must man­euver very care­fully to se­cure the 218 Re­pub­lic­an votes needed for pas­sage (as­sum­ing every eli­gible mem­ber votes).

The Amashes, Bar­tons, and Huel­skamps of the con­fer­ence voted for the GOP budget. But would they, and like-minded law­makers, as­sist lead­er­ship in passing a health care al­tern­at­ive? An un­em­ploy­ment bill? An im­mig­ra­tion-re­form pack­age? His­tory sug­gests that, un­less those meas­ures were tailored to ap­pease the far-Right of the House GOP, the an­swer would be no.

Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship of­fi­cials have long been bear­ish on their abil­ity in an elec­tion year to piece to­geth­er that GOP co­ali­tion — es­pe­cially when vot­ing on big, con­tro­ver­sial pieces of le­gis­la­tion — and have there­fore settled on a strategy of passing safe meas­ures aimed at unit­ing the party and keep­ing the spot­light on the short­com­ings of Obama­care. That ap­proach was val­id­ated by the budget vote.

For ex­ample, Ry­an’s budget, with its steep cuts to do­mest­ic spend­ing pro­grams, proved too con­ser­vat­ive for sev­er­al House Re­pub­lic­ans seek­ing reelec­tion in com­pet­it­ive dis­tricts. Rep. Chris Gib­son of New York, who faces a stiff Demo­crat­ic chal­lenge from ven­ture cap­it­al­ist Sean Eldridge, voted no. So did 10-term Rep. Frank Lo­Bi­ondo of New Jer­sey, who’s bra­cing for one of the toughest reelec­tion fights of his ca­reer. Both said the budget slashed too much spend­ing, and both oc­cupy vul­ner­able seats that could swing to­ward the Demo­crats with one risky vote.

On the flip side, for some GOP law­makers, Ry­an’s budget was not suf­fi­ciently con­ser­vat­ive. This was em­bod­ied by the Geor­gia del­eg­a­tion, where Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gin­grey, and Jack King­ston are fight­ing for the right­ward flank in this year’s Sen­ate primary. Pre­dict­ably, all three voted against the budget for not cut­ting deep enough, fast enough. (Broun and Gin­grey had voted against pre­vi­ous Ry­an budget; King­ston, des­per­ate to demon­strate his ul­tracon­ser­vat­ive bona fides, joined them this time.)

And then, as al­ways, there was the re­li­able op­pos­i­tion from a pre­dict­ably un­pre­dict­able bloc of Re­pub­lic­ans who will skate to reelec­tion in their dark-red dis­tricts, yet love to buck their party line non­ethe­less. In this camp are mod­er­ate Rep. Dav­id McKin­ley of West Vir­gin­ia, who re­jects Ry­an’s steep Medi­care cuts; liber­tari­an-lean­ing Rep. Thomas Massie of Ken­tucky, who said the budget didn’t slash enough spend­ing; and Rep. Aus­tin Scott of Geor­gia, who said he pre­ferred the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee’s far-right al­tern­at­ive.

In the end, Ry­an’s stand­ing with­in the con­fer­ence made it nar­rowly pos­sible to pass something that faced op­pos­i­tion from both sides of the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum. But it’s not likely to hap­pen again. After all, if it was that hard to build con­sensus for a budget that achieves a laun­dry list of long-held GOP pri­or­it­ies, ima­gine the dif­fi­culty of find­ing the sweet spot on something more com­plex, such as a health care al­tern­at­ive (which Re­pub­lic­ans were prom­ised a vote on this year).

Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship re­cog­nizes the Goldilocks com­plex. And, hav­ing barely es­caped last week’s budget vote, they un­der­stand bet­ter than ever the dif­fi­culty of get­ting it just right.

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