By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Legendary football coach Lou Holtz gives motivational lectures about “overcoming seemingly impossible challenges,” according to his page on the Washington Speakers Bureau website.
So it would seem that Holtz found an ideal client for his services: He was scheduled to deliver a keynote address Wednesday night to the House Republican Conference, meeting in Cambridge, Md.
The retired Notre Dame coach, whose bio says he has a “sterling reputation for turning pretenders into contenders,” had his work cut out for him with this GOP squad. The night before, Republicans sat in the House chamber and listened to President Obama inform them in his State of the Union address that, because they had refused to work with him, he would find ways to govern without them. Then, after no fewer than four Republicans gave televised responses to the president’s speech, a more memorable (if unplanned) response came from Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., who threatened to break a reporter in half and throw him off the [expletive] balcony of the Cannon House Office Building rotunda for asking unwanted questions.
Grimm apologized Wednesday morning for his unsportsmanlike conduct.
The larger problem for Republicans is a series of losses on key issues for the party’s conservative fan base. First, GOP lawmakers ignored complaints from conservative groups when they passed a 2014 appropriations bill this month that raised spending above previously set levels. Then, before leaving town Wednesday morning for their private retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, they passed a compromise farm bill that abandoned conservatives’ effort to make deep cuts in food stamps. Now come reports that the Republicans will abandon plans to fight over the next debt-limit increase. In addition, House GOP leaders will reportedly outline immigration legislation at the retreat that includes a path to legal status for illegal immigrants.
These developments are good news for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has been struggling for three years to corral his caucus. And they are good news for the country because they hint at the possibility that Washington is beginning to function again. But it’s a delicate spot to be in for Republican lawmakers because the conservative activists who brought them to power — and who still dominate the party’s grass roots — feel betrayed.
Coach Holtz’s challenge: Is it possible for Republicans to play ball with Senate Democrats and the White House without losing their fan base and the groups that essentially own the team?
The farm bill shows the conundrum. The legislation has been three years in the making, and it was delayed last year by conservatives’ attempts to remove the food-stamp program from the legislation, to give food-stamp recipients work requirements and to cut the program by $40 billion over 10 years.
But in the end, food stamps stayed in the farm bill, the work requirements became a work-training pilot program, and the $40 billion cut was eased to $8 billion — and that was achieved by eliminating a loophole involving home-heating assistance that would have allowed states to game the food-stamp program in ways even some liberals found dubious.
On top of that, the 959-page compromise was made public late Monday night and the vote was held Wednesday morning, well short of the 72 hours Republicans promised in 2010 so that lawmakers could read legislation before voting on it. The House devoted all of an hour to debating the bill before dashing off to the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay.
Groups affiliated with the tea party were furious. Heritage Action complained that “it means more unnecessary government dependence for wealthy farmers and food-stamp recipients.” The Club for Growth called it a “’Christmas tree’ bill where there’s a gift for practically every special-interest group out there with a well-connected lobbyist, including the fresh-cut-Christmas-tree industry.”
But during floor debate Wednesday morning, I heard only one Republican voice opposition, and that was in a one-minute speech by Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana before the debate technically began. “Business as usual fought back and here we are today,” he complained. “This is exactly the kind of logrolling that we fought to prevent.”
Sixty-two Republicans sided with Stutzman, Heritage Action and the Club for Growth.
But 161 Republicans sided with Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who said the bill “may not have exactly everything my friends on the right would want or my friends on the left would want. It represents making the process work, achieving consensus.”
The problem for Republicans is that the people who brought them to power didn’t ask for consensus and smooth processes. They wanted blocking and tackling.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.