For House Republicans, Lessons in Loss

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 16: U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) arrives at the U.S. Capitol for the day October 16, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. This is the sixteenth day of the government shutdown and the last day to find a solution before the government could potentially begin defaulting on debts.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
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Tim Alberta
Oct. 16, 2013, 7:55 p.m.

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.”

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