The Senate Republicans whose arguments helped drag Obamacare into the funding debate are well-known. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah have gained much attention.
But what about their counterparts in the House?
A small group of conservative House members has had broad influence over the fiscal debate, helping to steer the actions of Speaker John Boehner and the Republican conference. And yet few of them have stepped into the national spotlight.
“They meet secretly, they plot and they plan,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
One of the most visible is Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, who got dozens of fellow Republicans to support his effort to defund Obamacare and who, along with Cruz and Lee, has been instrumental in the push to use the funding fight to weaken the Affordable Care Act. Others include regular mavericks like Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, and Steve King of Iowa. There are also Reps. Paul Broun of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Steve Stockman of Texas, and Ted Yoho of Florida.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called the House tea-party wing a bunch of “legislative arsonists” for their demands. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called them “anarchists.”
While few doubt there is a genuine hatred of the Affordable Care Act and an antigovernment fervor among this group, some lawmakers suggest that the budget battle was also designed as a vehicle to weaken Boehner and help remake the House Republican Conference itself.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a tea-party-aligned member, said Wednesday that he’s heard such suggestions about himself and others who have played key instigating roles behind the House effort to tie the dismantling of Obamacare to a bill that funds government. And, indeed, Meadows wrote a letter to his Republican leaders this summer suggesting that very strategy, also signed by dozens of colleagues.
But Wednesday, Meadows said talk that the idea was intended to embarrass or undermine Boehner is untrue.
“I can tell you there’s been absolutely no conversations about a new speaker,” he said. “If anything, I’ve made just a great appeal to thank leadership in a united way.”
Nunes points out that many of the members involved in the Obamacare debate were part of the same group that “attempted this goofy thing right as we came out of the gate this year,” referring to a botched effort by some House lawmakers to prevent Boehner from winning his second term as speaker in January. More than 20 House Republicans were said to be behind that effort — enough to keep Boehner from getting a required majority-plus-one — but the rebellion fizzled.
In the time since then, Nunes said, many have worked to prevent Boehner from getting enough votes in the House to pass legislation without having to turn to Democrats for help, which some might see as weak. He suggests a similar strategy is in play on the budget impasse now.
“So what was the real objective? A lot of these guys, when you talk to them privately, the guys who don’t let us get to 218 on anything, they’ll tell you, “˜Well, we just figured the leadership was going to cave,’ “ Nunes said. He said their belief was that Boehner would cut a deal with President Obama and Democrats, and by his doing so would further undermine his standing as speaker.
“So now just step back from this — if they actually thought Boehner was going to cave, that means they never actually had a real plan to deal with the CR to begin with,” Nunes said. “From the beginning, this never made sense.”
A Boehner spokesman had no comment.
But another House Republican lawmaker, speaking on the condition he not be named, said that Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., share part of the blame for the openness and brazenness with which some conservatives now openly defy the speaker.
While there are few public confrontations within the leadership trio, he noted that both Cantor and McCarthy voted on New Year’s against the bill designed to avert the so-called fiscal cliff, abandoning Boehner. The lawmaker said that illustrated for others that Boehner’s influence could be challenged.
“It’s one thing to sit at the leadership table and disagree and talk through things,” the lawmaker said. “It’s another to then leave the table and do so. And since the fiscal cliff when you had No. 2 and No. 3 not back No. 1, everybody’s been saying, “˜Where are these guys?’ “
Meadows insists that what he and the other conservatives behind the effort to tie Obamacare to a CR are trying to accomplish has nothing to do with ousting Boehner.
“We are united in this effort to get government back open and working again. So, there’s been no talk of anything like that,” he said.