WASHINGTON — After years of placating conservative groups that repeatedly undermined his agenda, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, took direct aim at some of his tea party critics Thursday, accusing them of working against the interests of the Republican Party.
Calling the groups “misleading” and without “credibility,” Boehner pointed to the string of bipartisan deals that passed the House on its last legislative day of 2013 as the sort of “common ground” that should provide a new path for congressional work.
The House voted 332 to 94 on Thursday night to approve a two-year budget outline that would reduce the chance of another government shutdown and end the cycle of crisis budgeting that has been the scourge of Washington for much of the past three years.
The budget approval was the most prominent accomplishment of a day on which the usually moribund House also passed legislation that would extend the farm bill through January and approved the annual policy bill for the Pentagon.
That collection of legislation will head next week to the Senate, where the budget pact will have to steer a narrow path to victory through concern from GOP defense hawks who oppose a provision in the bill that would reduce military pension benefits.
With his assault on outside groups that have opposed him time and again over the past three years, Boehner gave voice to a growing feeling among congressional Republicans that their nominal allies at advocacy groups and think tanks have turned into puritanical partisans whose posture on many issues has undermined the GOP’s standing on Capitol Hill. Boehner’s remarks came amid increasingly strident clashes between establishment Republicans and Washington-based groups that claim the tea party banner, most prominently Heritage Action for America, the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks.
The 16-day federal government shutdown in October, largely orchestrated by groups such as Heritage Action, became a pivot point for many longtime Republican lawmakers to begin pushing back against more conservative newcomers.
The turning point for Boehner – who acknowledged feeling this way for several years – was an effort to sabotage the bipartisan budget deal crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Ryan, the Republican Party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, still engenders much respect in all ideological corners of the GOP caucus, and his plan won plaudits from senior Republicans for establishing a two-year framework that many hope will provide evidence that the House GOP is able and willing to govern.
But those outside groups attacked Ryan for allowing an additional $63 billion in agency spending over the next two years in exchange for savings that come over the next decade.
“Frankly, I think they’re misleading their followers,” Boehner told reporters at his weekly news briefing. “I think they’re pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be. And frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility.”
Hours later, Ryan’s deal won a majority of House GOP votes – 169 for it, 62 against it – unlike every other bipartisan fiscal pact in 2013, most of which barely attracted a third of the Republican caucus.
For the House GOP, the year began with an attempted coup against Boehner by House conservatives in early January and continued with a string of failed votes for the speaker and his leadership team.
Instead of the dysfunction that dominated the year, House Republicans in recent weeks had hoped to better position themselves to negotiate deals with Senate Democrats by passing legislation that was not perfect in the most conservative eyes, but that advanced their cause. But that repositioning has done little to ease tensions in the party.
Conflagrations already have occurred in a Republican primary for a special congressional election in Alabama, and more than half a dozen Senate primaries next year pit mainstream conservatives against those from the far right. Establishment groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have vowed to wade into primaries if it means electing a more traditional, business-friendly Republican.
This week’s clash over the Murray-Ryan budget served as the first big policy contest inside the fractured House Republican Conference since the shutdown. Some conservatives recoiled at both Ryan’s proposal and Boehner’s critique of the outside groups, with the central complaint focusing on the increased funding for federal agencies above certain limits that were part of a 2011 budget deal.
“The more information that gets out about this deal, the harder it is for members to vote yes and go back home and explain that vote,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action. Holler warned that Boehner will risk the Republican majority if conservative voters “are not going to motivate to turn out in November 2014.”
He described Boehner’s message to conservative voters as, “We use you guys to get elected.”
One of Heritage’s staunchest allies, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said he thinks Boehner’s moment of candor was prompted by the belief among some Republicans that he will not run for speaker next term. “I don’t think the speaker’s too worried; the rumor is that he’s not going to be here in a year and a half,” Huelskamp told reporters. “This would match that.”
Boehner has said that he intends to remain speaker and on Monday filed to run for re-election next year in his southwest Ohio district.
The more prominent view among House Republicans was that Ryan’s deal with Murray, while disappointing with just $23 billion in deficit reduction, would make another government shutdown highly unlikely and signals that House Republicans are trying to move beyond the past three years of fiscal brinkmanship they have engaged in with the Obama White House.
The outside groups opposing Ryan – including Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund – would instead steer House Republicans onto a familiar path, lurching from crisis to crisis, many House Republicans said.
“It’s not helpful for them to say that that’s completely unacceptable. What would they like? Another government shutdown? If that’s what they want, they should run for Congress,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Issa called his view “absolutely a majority of the majority.”
The battle has left some Republicans conflicted. On Wednesday, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, an influential conservative caucus, fired the organization’s longtime top staffer and said he was secretly collaborating with the outside groups trying to pressure Republicans to oppose Ryan’s deal. Scalise said the aide had lost the trust of lawmakers by working against their positions, but on Thursday he said that he still appreciates the help that Heritage Action and others provide in supporting conservative causes.
“I’m not sure what the speaker’s thought process is. Look, outside groups have an important role to play in this process. I support what they do and their role in the process,” he said.
Boehner, however, turned his normally staid weekly news briefing into a moment of political theater, unmatched in his speakership. Fed up after holding his tongue for three years, he lashed out in a fashion that was reminiscent of Warren Beatty’s character in the movie “Bulworth,” about a Democratic senator who lashes out at liberal extremist constituencies.
On Wednesday, Boehner issued a brief aside, accusing Heritage Action and others of “using” younger, less experienced GOP lawmakers. On Thursday, he delivered a more expansive critique, acknowledging that he felt pushed.
“It’s just that, you know, there just comes to a point when some people step over the line,” he said. “You know, when you criticize something and you have no idea what you’re criticizing, it undermines your credibility.”
Then he smiled and added, “Have a merry Christmas.”