For Republicans, budget deal represents a defining moment

December 11, 2013

Republicans in Washington are tired of losing otherwise winnable elections, tired of being pushed around by outside conservative groups interested in purity over pragmatism, and tired of poll numbers that show their party is far less popular than President Obama and congressional Democrats. The emerging budget deal announced Tuesday night represents a potentially defining moment for a party divided between those who believe the party needs to prove it can govern, and those who believe in purity at all costs.

The $85 billion agreement, negotiated between House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), marks the first time in years the two sides have come together to build anything more than a stopgap funding measure. The proposal halves the spending cuts known as the sequester while trimming spending and deficits by more than $20 billion over the next decade.

Speaking at the Capitol on Tuesday evening, Murray called the deal “an important step” in healing the self-inflicted partisan wounds in Congress. Ryan offered a much more measured take, calling the compromise “a step in the right direction.”

But crafting the bipartisan deal may turn out to be the easy part. The harder row to hoe begins now: Selling the deal to a House Republican caucus that includes members who will see anything short of a total conservative victory as a capitulation, and members for whom voting against their own leadership is in their political interest.

There is ample reason for the budget deal’s supporters to be concerned that it cannot win backing from House Republicans. In the past several years, deals to avert the “fiscal cliff” and a government shutdown have collapsed under the weight of conservative opposition. A year ago, when even a so-called “Plan B,” a conservative alternative to avert the fiscal cliff that wouldn’t have won Democratic support in the Senate, was advanced by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), it wasn’t sufficiently conservative for Cantor’s members.

The budget deal, in short, puts House Republicans at a crossroads: They can pass a compromise that locks in incremental gains on spending cuts, declare a partial victory and show evidence that they are interested in governing. Or they can reject the deal as insufficiently conservative and cement the party’s growing reputation as unwilling to come to the table, despite the political reality that Democrats control the Senate and the White House.

“We are either a party that is serious about governing when control of Washington is split, or we are an unserious party that doesn’t care about realistic incremental gains, only caring about unrealistically getting the whole ball of wax, which will never happen as long as there is a Democratic president and a Democratic majority leader,” said Glen Bolger, a leading Republican pollster. “We have to stop being the dysfunctional equivalent of the Washington Redskins.”

Backers of the budget deal can be forgiven if they are feeling a queasy sense of deja vu. Even before the final details of the budget deal emerged, the outside groups that have so frustrated establishment Republicans declared it insufficient.

Tim Phillips, who heads the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, said conservatives who voted for the plan would be “go[ing] back on their word to rein in government over-spending.” Heritage Action for America said Tuesday it would oppose a deal that included “woefully inadequate long-term [spending] reductions.” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola criticized Republicans “who don’t have the stomach for even relatively small spending reductions.”

“If Republicans work with Democrats to pass this deal, it should surprise no one when Republican voters seek alternatives who actually believe in less spending when they go to the ballot box,” Chocola said in a statement. Already, Republicans challenging Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) have said they oppose the deal. So have Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

The outside groups that oppose the deal are the same ones that have built power bases in the House and backed ultra-conservative candidates in several Senate primary contests across the country over the last several years — candidates who have cost the party otherwise winnable Senate seats in states such as Delaware, Missouri, Indiana, Nevada and Colorado. Several groups are backing conservative challengers to incumbent senators this year; more than half of the Senate Republicans seeking reelection this year face potentially viable tea party challenges.

Republican leaders have begun a concerted effort to push back against those groups, both in Washington and in primary contests around the country. McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, has specifically targeted the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group backing his primary rival, businessman Matt Bevin. In a call with donors last month, McConnell likened the group to “schoolyard bullies.” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), is attacking “Washington people” and their “voting score cards” at campaign stops across Tennessee.

Groups such as American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have pledged to get involved in primary campaigns on behalf of more electable, more moderate candidates. And an outside group run by former congressman Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), who built a reputation as a pragmatic centrist during his congressional career, has said it will raise $8 million to spend on advertising pushing back against tea party groups.

Inside the Beltway, Republicans frustrated by the influence those outside groups wield are making a stand. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Wednesday morning that the outside groups are “using our members and they’re using the American people for their own goals.”

Boehner has made clear he will make a stand over the Ryan-Murray agreement. House Republicans met Wednesday morning for more than an hour to discuss the deal; afterward, Boehner drew the line in the sand: “Listen, if you’re for more deficit reduction, you’re for this deal,” he said.

Boehner’s sales job is the latest inside-the-Beltway skirmish in the establishment-vs.-tea party war. It’s a war in which the establishment hasn’t won many battles.

If Boehner is able to pass the budget deal with a majority of his own conference, it will mark the first concrete victory for Washington Republicans intent on taking their party back from the increasingly powerful outside groups. But if the deal runs into a brick wall of conservative opposition, it will be one more sign that the balance of power in the Republican Party has shifted decisively away from Capitol Hill, and toward the tea party.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson | December 11, 2013