House Republican freshmen largely quiet as Boehner navigates ‘fiscal cliff’

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza looks at what Republicans want to get out of the fiscal cliff negotiations — and where they might need to bend. (The Washington Post)
December 11, 2012

After spending the better part of the past two years loudly defying their leaders, many House Republican freshmen are now trying a new approach: quiet support.

They have responded with near-silence as a group largely controlled by House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) removed three freshmen and one other lawmaker from plum committee assignments, partly in retribution for two years of nagging rebellion.

And they have afforded Boehner remarkable leeway to negotiate a deal with President Obama to avoid a year-end “fiscal cliff,” even though many realize that a compromise would probably include the kind of concessions many promised to resist.

The new attitude of the freshmen has freed Boehner, allowing him to move against a handful of members in the kind of hardball politics he once disdained as old-school and counterproductive.

It also has allowed him to at least contemplate the kind of “grand bargain” with Obama — involving new taxes and spending cuts — that last year was considered likely to be an impossible sale among his own members.

“You can’t have every member of the conference trying to negotiate,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), a freshman. “We elected Speaker Boehner to be our leader. We need to let him lead.”

Support for Boehner will not face a true test unless he brings forward a deal that would be difficult for Republicans. The speaker submitted a new offer to Obama on Tuesday, although he and the White House appear far apart on an agreement.

For now, many of the 87 GOP freshmen elected in 2010 — more than 70 of whom won reelection last month and will return as sophomores in January — are giving Boehner the benefit of the doubt.

“Speaker Boehner has a very hard job,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.), one of the House’s most conservative freshmen. “I could not do his job, and I would not do his job. It’s easy for me, as the lowest level of the House, to criticize what others are trying to do. But I’m not going to do it.”

Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) called the new attitude “just common sense.”

“When you speak with one voice, rather than many voices, you’ll have a stronger hand,” he said.

It may be common sense, but it has not been the unruly House freshmen’s practice in the past two years of bitter spending fights.

During the 2011 debate over the debt ceiling, Boehner was forced to delay a vote on a proposal intended to outline the Republican Party’s position after tea party freshmen demanded that a balanced-budget amendment be added to the Constitution.

A spending resolution last fall was defeated on the House floor after conservative members, many of them freshmen, opposed millions in new disaster relief money not offset with other spending cuts.

And this time last year, House Republicans suffered a loss after Obama portrayed them as opposed to a Christmastime tax cut for the middle class, forcing the House to accept a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday, which many freshmen opposed.

Through it all, Boehner, a low-key leader who often says he believes in letting the House “work its will,” generally tried to elevate members who were helpful to leaders but declined to punish the recalcitrant.

That changed last week, when the steering committee, the Republican group that makes committee assignments and is heavily influenced by the speaker, agreed to kick three conservative freshmen — Reps. Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), Justin Amash (Mich.) and David Schweikert (Ariz.) — and longtime maverick Walter B. Jones (N.C.) out of top committee jobs.

Huelskamp, a farmer, was removed from the Agriculture and Budget panels. Amash lost his Budget Committee job, while Schweikert and Jones were taken off the Financial Services Committee.

“The speaker made it pretty clear that this might not be the last of this, and others are expected to fall in line and stay in line,” Huelskamp said.

What has been a boisterous caucus seems to be meeting Boehner’s expectations.

Each congressman had crossed leaders — and some colleagues — repeatedly. Amash and Huelskamp, for example, voted against the Republican budget written by Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) in the Budget Committee this spring, arguing that it did not cut spending deeply enough.

Huelskamp told reporters that if he could have found a flight in time, he would have swept back to Washington last December to deliver the lone objection to the payroll tax deal, a move that would have required all of his fellow House members to return to town over Christmas to take up the politically treacherous issue.

He said colleagues have told the group that the steering committee used a scorecard of past votes to determine loyalty and targeted members who have not stood by House leaders.

During the open-mike section of a closed-door meeting of House Republicans last week, Huels­kamp rose and complained about the moving, asking that Boehner publicly release any scorecard used to determine loyalty.

“It was basically, ‘next speaker,’ ” Huelskamp said, describing the silence that followed his remarks.

On Friday, when he, Amash and Schweikert submitted a joint letter requesting an explanation, their signatures were the only ones on the note.

Another time a Republican speaker tried this, the results were different. In 1995, when Mark Neumann, then a freshman congressman from Wisconsin, was removed from a key committee post in retaliation for voting against the GOP leadership’s spending priorities, a group of 25 fellow freshmen marched into then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s office and demanded that he be reinstated.

“We were completely united that our job was to balance the budget,” Neumann said, reflecting on the support he received 17 years ago from the freshmen, who persuaded Gingrich (Ga.) to give him another important committee post. “I hope that happens now.”

But despite agitation from conservative groups off Capitol Hill — FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe called Boehner’s move a “remarkably hostile act” to conservatives and urged activists to protest — House freshmen have not lined up behind the three.

“I’m disappointed in it,” Huels­kamp said, chalking it up, in part, to a short workweek for the House last week, which resulted in members being in Washington for only three days.

In a letter sent to the three members late Monday, Boehner denied that his steering committee had used a scorecard and said they should discuss their concerns with those on the panel.

At the private meeting last week, Boehner told colleagues that the steering committee had not “taken the action lightly” and denied that ideology was involved, according to a GOP aide. Members emerged promising to rally behind Boehner in talks on the fiscal cliff.

“We’ve got a lead negotiator — Speaker Boehner,” said Rep. James Lankford (Okla.), a freshman on the Budget Committee who, unlike Huelskamp and Amash, has supported the Ryan budget. “They’ve got to get this resolved at a level they’re comfortable.”

Boehner’s hand also has been hardened by Republicans losses in the November election. He held the GOP’s House majority, even as the party was unable to capture the White House and the Senate, leaving him essentially the party’s de facto standard-bearer.

And the attitude is driven in part by a growing understanding that Obama is negotiating from a position of strength in talks over how to avoid year-end spending cuts and tax increases.

The president won reelection last month arguing that taxes must go up for the wealthy as part of a deficit-reduction deal. If no deal is reached and Congress takes no action, polls show, Americans will probably blame Republicans when taxes rise for nearly everyone next month.

“The way it looks to me, the president has a full house and we have a pair of deuces and we’re trying to do the best we can,” said Farenthold, the Texas congressman.

Boehner’s support could still slip, especially if House members think he is willing to give up too much or is ready to cave too soon.

Colorado’s Gardner said, for example, that he thinks Boehner will not ask Republicans to allow tax rates to increase.

Obama has insisted that the tax rate must go up for the nation’s wealthiest households as part of any fiscal-cliff deal, and more moderate Republicans have been pushing the party to accept that as the cost of restraining entitlement spending.

“You have our leadership standing firm on tax-rate increases, which is in line with most of my colleagues,” Gardner said.

But, he added, “if they end up doing something different, they’ll look around and find a very lonely podium behind them.”

There is also an expectation that dozens of House Republicans are likely to vote against any deal Boehner brokers with Obama. Sixty-six Republicans opposed the debt-ceiling agreement in 2011, and Boehner has become accustomed to needing a mix of GOP and Democratic votes to pass major fiscal measures.

But there is a difference between voting against a bill on its way to passage and working to scuttle a compromise in its crib.

“One’s voting your conscience, and one is throwing bricks. Sometimes you’ve got to throw a brick,” Farenthold said. “But as a general rule, throwing bricks breaks things.”

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