House Conservatives Still Trust Boehner — For Now

The shutdown has divided Washington, even the Republican Party. But inside the House GOP, tea-party members and leaders remain united.

US Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks to the media after a meeting with US President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, DC, October 2, 2013, on the second day of the government shutdown. 
National Journal
Tim Alberta
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Tim Alberta
Oct. 3, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

 

Even be­fore John Boehner traveled to the White House on day two of the shut­down, Pres­id­ent Obama made it known he would be press­ing Re­pub­lic­ans to ac­cept a clean spend­ing bill — one that funds Obama­care and re­opens the gov­ern­ment. But as the speak­er de­par­ted the Cap­it­ol, con­ser­vat­ives showed no con­cern that their lead­er might cave to those de­mands; Boehner had already sworn to them that no such res­ol­u­tion would pass the House.

And they took him at his word.

There is no short­age of in­triguing story lines as the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment wraps up its first week of shut­down. But the one with the po­ten­tial to res­on­ate on Cap­it­ol Hill long after this crisis abates is the sud­den con­son­ance with­in a House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence that has been sharply di­vided along ideo­lo­gic­al fault lines since claim­ing the ma­jor­ity in 2010. At this his­tor­ic mo­ment of deep par­tis­an di­vi­sion on the Hill, House Re­pub­lic­ans are more uni­fied than they have been in re­cent memory. This solid­ar­ity bodes well for Boehner and his speak­er­ship, but it por­tends a pro­trac­ted shut­down that is un­likely to end un­til Demo­crats some­how of­fer something ac­cept­able to the con­ser­vat­ive ma­jor­ity in the House GOP.

Over the past three weeks, Boehner and his lead­er­ship team have been greeted with en­thu­si­ast­ic hand­shakes from ul­tracon­ser­vat­ive mem­bers and stand­ing ova­tions be­hind closed doors. They also have ex­ecuted sev­er­al un­an­im­ous floor votes without a single GOP de­fec­tion. And for this new­found har­mony, con­ser­vat­ives cred­it their oft-ma­ligned speak­er.

“He’s lead­ing. That’s the biggest thing … that he’s ac­tu­ally lead­ing,” gushed fresh­man Rep. Ted Yoho of Flor­ida. “He listened to mem­ber­ship, and he’s put him­self out there, and he’s stand­ing strong. We’re all so proud of him right now.”

Such rev­er­ence for lead­er­ship is new. Back in Janu­ary, Yoho was one of 12 Re­pub­lic­ans to vote against Boehner’s reelec­tion as speak­er, lay­ing bare the vis­cer­al mis­trust con­ser­vat­ives held for the top Re­pub­lic­an in Wash­ing­ton. Soon after that in­cid­ent, a cease-fire was called, and both sides made prom­ises to pro­mote co­he­sion and unity with­in the con­fer­ence.

Still, a per­cep­tion of Boehner per­sisted: He had gone soft. As a young­er rep­res­ent­at­ive, mem­bers whispered, Boehner had been every bit the in­sur­gent reneg­ade itch­ing for a fight with lead­er­ship. (“He was just like us,” laughed Rep. Tim Huel­skamp of Kan­sas, an­oth­er of the 12 anti-Boehner votes.) But after as­cend­ing to the speak­er­ship, the nar­rat­ive went, Boehner lost his edge. He kept ad­vising con­ser­vat­ives to “live to fight an­oth­er day,” and they thought he lacked the stom­ach for any fight, on any day.

On Sept. 18, he sur­prised them. In a spe­cial con­fer­ence meet­ing, Boehner in­formed his mem­bers, who had re­cently re­jec­ted lead­er­ship’s mod­est strategy, that he would push a bill to tem­por­ar­ily fund the gov­ern­ment while per­man­ently de­fund­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act. Con­ser­vat­ives in the room, ac­cord­ing to Rep. Matt Sal­mon of Ari­zona, “went bonkers.” As Wash­ing­ton moved closer to shut­down, and Boehner dug in be­hind his re­fus­al to pass any con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion that funds Obama­care, con­ser­vat­ives cel­eb­rated “Boehner 2.0” and closed ranks around their newly li­on­ized speak­er.

“It’s easi­er to fol­low some­body who you know is will­ing to fight,” said Rep. Raul Lab­rador of Idaho, an­oth­er mem­ber who re­fused to vote for Boehner in Janu­ary. Lab­rador, who came to Con­gress in 2010 know­ing Boehner’s his­tory as a trouble­maker in the 1990s, said con­ser­vat­ives have fre­quently felt let down by the speak­er’s cau­tious ap­proach. But with his stand against Obama­care, Lab­rador said, Boehner is sud­denly re­veal­ing him­self as “the lead­er we al­ways wanted him to be.”

Of course, con­ser­vat­ives have seen glimpses of this Boehner be­fore. In ad­voc­at­ing for Rep. Paul Ry­an’s con­tro­ver­sial budget, for in­stance, or sup­port­ing the se­quester cuts, Boehner has united his con­fer­ence when tack­ing to the right. “Lead­er­ship has learned that when we are most con­ser­vat­ive, we are most united,” said Rep. Mick Mul­vaney of South Car­o­lina, still an­oth­er Boehner de­fect­or from earli­er this year.

For now, then, con­ser­vat­ives are ap­peased and the con­fer­ence is co­hes­ive. (A smal­ler, more mod­er­ate fac­tion is will­ing to pass a clean CR to open the gov­ern­ment now, but it doesn’t seem to have much sway.) With the shut­down be­gin­ning to bleed to­ward an even big­ger battle — the debt ceil­ing, which must be raised by Oct. 17 — the dur­ab­il­ity of this uni­on will be severely tested. House Re­pub­lic­ans across the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum ac­know­ledged this week that both battles will likely need to be re­solved with one sweep­ing agree­ment. For that to hap­pen, Boehner will have to of­fer some ma­jor con­ces­sions — start­ing with fully fund­ing the pres­id­ent’s health care law — that risk break­ing up the broth­er­hood.

Mov­ing for­ward, Huel­skamp vows, his at­ti­tude to­ward lead­er­ship will hew to Ron­ald Re­agan’s sig­na­ture phrase. With a grin, he says, “It will al­ways be, ‘Trust, but veri­fy.’ The speak­er would have said the same thing when he was in our shoes.”

The real­ity that Re­pub­lic­ans have dis­covered is, they are more ef­fect­ive do­ing battle against the Demo­crats when they aren’t sim­ul­tan­eously fight­ing amongst them­selves. The comity may not last, but con­ser­vat­ives are cer­tainly en­joy­ing it while it does.

“Could we still screw things up as con­ser­vat­ives? Sure. Could he still screw things up as the speak­er? Sure. That’s just hu­man nature,” Mul­vaney says. “But the point is, the re­la­tion­ship is get­ting stronger.”

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