Time and again last year, House Republican leaders faced a nearly intractable opponent: the very freshman class that propelled them into the majority with the historic 2010 midterm elections.
Rebelling from the outset of the 112th Congress and later wreaking internal havoc during talks to increase the Treasury Department’s ability to borrow funds, the freshman class repeatedly created problems for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), according to a new book.
The freshman resistance caused feuds among Boehner and his lieutenants that led some to fear a mutiny, heightened several showdowns with President Obama and eventually led to fissures among the rookies, pitting those who seldom trusted the leaders against those who reflexively did, according to “Do Not Ask What Good We Do,” an account of the freshman class’s impact by Robert Draper.
The infighting reached such a point in the fall that some newcomers requested that the weekly freshman meetings be disbanded because they had turned into shouting matches, with freshmen loudly criticizing the leaders.
The importance of the freshmen has subsided as the House and Senate have scaled back their agendas heading into the fall elections, but the group is poised to play a pivotal role in a lame-duck session in which Congress must reach a compromise to keep more than $5 trillion worth of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts from kicking in Jan. 1.
Draper’s book was based on interviews with more than 50 House members, including some freshmen he interviewed more than a dozen times, as well as many current and former senior aides.
The resulting work paints a different picture than the one often presented by Boehner’s leadership team, which frequently proclaimed that there was no “freshman problem,” noting that the group’s overall voting patterns were similar to those of the rest of the GOP conference.
The book, which will be released Tuesday, shows just how much energy had to be expended on the 87 freshmen who took their oath in January 2011, many of them holding office for the first time. Accounting for nearly 40 percent of Boehner’s conference, the freshmen exercised their clout early and often, imposing their will on the rest of the House Republicans.
Many freshmen viewed GOP leaders warily from the outset and compelled Boehner’s team to make the rookies the constant focus of its attention.
“I didn’t come to Washington to be part of a team,” Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho) told the book’s author.
The first major bill brought the first revolt, when leaders presented a funding bill for federal agencies that cut $33 billion from the previous year’s tally. Labrador rushed to the microphones at the Capitol basement meeting to promote the $100 billion in cuts that had been promised in the 2010 campaign manifesto. “To me $100 billion isn’t the ceiling; it’s the floor,” the freshman said. Moments later, Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-Fla.), a funeral home operator who won a previously Democratic seat in 2010, issued a warning to Boehner: “I will hold you accountable to the promises that you made.”
Despite senior lawmakers warning that the level of cuts was unsustainable in just half a fiscal year, Boehner’s team ordered up a new bill — creating a showdown with Obama and the Senate that ended an hour before a federal shutdown was to begin.
That capitulation set the stage for the summer’s effort to lift the debt ceiling. As Boehner and Obama engaged in secretive talks trying to craft $4 trillion in savings, the speaker’s best friends demanded an emergency meeting to discuss their fear that the freshmen would rebel over possible tax hikes and that his internal rival, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), would benefit from Boehner’s demise.
“Some of the freshmen don’t have a grasp of what the facts are, and they’re going to rebel. You’d be finished,” Reps. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Patrick J. Tiberi (R-Ohio) warned Boehner, according to Draper’s interviews with two of the men.
Cantor and Boehner have publicly played down their rivalry.
“We get along fine. I mean, really, we really do,” Cantor said Thursday at a Politico policy breakfast, calling it a “misplaced fascination” within the media.
Boehner’s advisers suggested that the most tense moments came in early July when few knew of the substance of Boehner and Obama’s talks. As the speaker brought Cantor into the discussions, informing other lawmakers about the policy and process, the conference was more unified and Boehner’s friends were less concerned about his standing, according to Boehner’s advisers.
Although no freshmen rebellion occurred — two-thirds of the freshmen supported Boehner’s final compromise with Obama — Labrador openly mused about expelling the speaker and every committee chairman. A sufficient number of Republicans could have threatened to back a Democrat for speaker if they did not got exactly what they wanted, as nearly happened to Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1997.
“It only took about a dozen members to nearly unseat Newt Gingrich,” Labrador said, according to the book. Today, he said, “you could find 30 members easily.”
During the debt-ceiling fight, some freshmen were ready to push the government into default. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), a first-time politician who was a surprise winner of a South Texas district, wrote Boehner to express his fear that the debt ceiling was “very possibly a hostage that we’re unwilling to shoot.”
In an interview Friday, Farenthold said he has some regret that he eventually agreed, under pressure from local businessmen, to support the compromise, because it brought only $2.1 trillion in savings.
“I think we could have survived it,” he said Friday of a federal default.
When he agreed to support the plan, he screamed at McCarthy’s whip team and at Cantor, telling them: “You guys are killing me. You guys have got to give us some bones to throw to the tea party.”
While Ellmers came to epitomize the freshmen supportive of leadership and Labrador the anti-leadership camp, Farenthold was caught in the middle. On Friday, he said he understood the admonition to get “three yards and a cloud of dust,” a football metaphor to keep advancing the agenda.
Yet, he said, Draper’s book properly captures the freshman class’s “frustration with the capitulation” that GOP leaders often settled for with Obama. “I continue to bang my head against the wall,” Farenthold said, “because maybe we could have gotten four or five yards, not three.”