After two difficult years of trying to manage the tea party class of freshmen that made him House speaker in 2011, John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) now faces a new challenge: a freshman class potentially as rebellious as the last.
Fewer Republicans were elected to the House in November than in the 2010 midterm election, which ushered in 87 newcomers. Those new lawmakers promised to dramatically shrink government spending and shake up Washington, and often refused to follow Boehner’s lead on contentious issues.
As Boehner begins his second term as speaker, early indications are that many of the House’s 29 new Republicans could be similarly willing to buck party leaders.
The group will face a key test Tuesday when the House votes on $50 billion in aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Some conservatives, including new members, are pushing to offset the emergency spending with other cuts.
Amendments to the aid package could derail quick passage in the Senate, which has a bipartisan agreement to award $60 billion to storm victims without an equal amount of spending reductions.
A split within the GOP over hurricane assistance already earned Boehner harsh criticism from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), whose state was hit hard by the storm, and could ensure a particularly divisive start to the congressional term.
“I’d prefer to be a ‘yes’ vote, but I’ve got to be responsible with taxpayer funds,” said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), who voted against $9.7 billion in flood relief the day after he took office this month.
Through two years of listening sessions and periodic blow-ups, Boehner earned the admiration of many of those elected in 2010 — but never their full support.
Now, with a thinned majority (Democrats picked up eight seats in November), he will have to start over with a new cadre of conservatives, just as Congress confronts a series of difficult fiscal decisions.
Congress must raise the nation’s $16.4 trillion debt ceiling by the end of February or risk a government default. At the start of March, broad cuts to military and domestic spending that were delayed for two months in the “fiscal cliff” deal will begin without action. And the funding mechanism that keeps the government running will expire at the end of March.
On Monday, President Obama vowed not to negotiate over the debt ceiling, insisting that dire economic consequences would result without congressional action.
Boehner responded that the consequences of not increasing the ceiling are real — but said that “so, too, are the consequences of allowing our spending problem to go unresolved,” and he pledged that the House will act to cut spending.
An increasing number of congressional Republicans, including some elected in November, say that Obama is overstating the potential harm.
Default is a “fake red herring,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (Ariz.), arguing that many government functions would cease but that Obama could “prioritize spending” to blunt the impact.
Already, some of the freshmen have shown a willingness to oppose Boehner.
In their first act after swearing the oath, four newly elected Republicans declined to back him as House speaker, representing one-third of the 12 members who opposed Boehner in an election he only narrowly carried.
Next, 18 new members were among 67 House Republicans who voted against a first installment of aid for Sandy victims.
“That says to me that we have a class that’s ready to get serious about balancing the budget,” said Rep. Tom Massie (R-Ky.), who took office in November after winning a special election.
The new class includes fewer bomb-throwers than the last class, which was peppered with first-time lawmakers who prided themselves on their lack of experience.
“They haven’t been nearly as boisterous in the media,” one House Republican leadership aide said of this year’s group. On the other hand, the aide added, the immediate votes against Boehner represented a “boldness not seen among the tea party class.”
Newcomers include Rep. Ted Yoho (Fla.), a large-animal veterinarian, and Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (Mich.), who owns a reindeer ranch and moonlights as a Santa Claus.
But the class features former state officials and legislators and two members who served in the House previously.
“I promised my constituents that we wouldn’t do business as usual because business as usual was not getting the job done,” Massie said of his vote against Boehner.
He said that he will support the speaker in debt talks but that his goal is to bring about major change in Washington.
Salmon, one of those who previously served in Congress and is returning as a freshman after running unsuccessfully for governor of Arizona and spending 12 years out of office. He backed Boehner.
But he said he was displeased with GOP negotiating tactics in past spending battles. The party must be tougher, he said, to force Democrats to make significant concessions.
“In every major negotiation squabble, we’ve come to the brink of disaster, and then Republicans — at least the House — have kind of acquiesced,” he said. “I just really felt like a message needed to be sent to him that everything isn’t hunky dory.”
Rep. Tom Cotton (Ark.), a Harvard-educated Army veteran, said: “So far, everything we’ve discussed as a conference indicates to me that we’re totally aligned in our plans going forward: to have the tax debate behind us and focus like a laser on spending.”
Cotton, who backed Boehner for speaker, said House Republicans are unified behind his strategy.
“We realize that President Obama and his policies have driven us to where we are now,” he said. “This is not an internal problem inside the House.”