Right flanks join to push conservative goals
By: Burgess Everett
October 27, 2013 04:57 PM EDT
The once private club of House and Senate conservatives is now public — and powerful.
Conservatives have always been vocal about their priorities but have rarely coordinated their efforts across both sides of the Capitol in public. But led by Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, whose attacks on Obamacare sparked a 16-day government shutdown, a bicameral GOP caucus has emerged as a congressional power bloc increasingly comfortable with trying to seize the driver’s seat of the Republican agenda.
Building on the foundation laid by tea party godfather Jim DeMint, the right flanks of the House and Senate have been getting together for months — or in some cases years — to design an agenda around trimming food stamp benefits, impairing Obamacare, hacking away at spending and other reliable red meat. The informal group is viewed suspiciously by establishment Republicans and those in leadership, but conservatives say there’s nothing to hide.
“If they were secret, we wouldn’t have done it at Tortilla Coast,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), referring to a meeting at the Capitol Hill eatery with Cruz and other conservatives two days before a crucial debt ceiling deadline this month. “We were very transparent that we were talking to one another.”
First elected to Congress in the mid-1990s and elected for a second stint in 2012, Salmon remembers the days when the bicameral conservative caucus could have been crammed into a minivan. Now there are sufficient numbers in the House majority to tank House leadership’s best-laid plans if deemed necessary — as they demonstrated repeatedly during the fall fiscal debates when they forced leadership to shelve several plans that were derided for not being conservative enough.
Eventually, leadership gave in, embracing the “defund Obamacare” agenda as a condition for funding the government and provoking a highly unusual news conference featuring Lee, Cruz and and a gaggle of House members praising their leadership for finally coming around.
“It’s a great day for America,” said Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.).
The appearances by Cruz and Lee on the House side exemplified how comfortable a number of tea party-flavored senators have become usingthe upper chamber’s big microphone to attack Democrats and, increasingly, Republicans in the Senate deemed insufficiently conservative.
“There’s about 30 to 40 now,” Salmon said of the House’s ranks. “And there was nobody you could talk to in the Senate. Now there’s about nine or 10 on the Senate side.”
In interviews, several House members who speak to Lee, Cruz and other senators such as Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on a regular basis, described the conservative faction’s double-barreled philosophy: Use their influence in the House majority to steer leadership toward conservative goals like defunding Obamacare in spending bills while right-wing all-stars like Cruz use the Senate floor as a national press platform.
“We feel like we can be more effective that way. They’ve got bigger bullhorns [in the Senate] where they can drive the message across the country through the media,” said Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.). “And in the House, we’ve got the majority. I think it makes a good team at the end of the day.”
Senior Republican aides in both chambers — often furious with the scheming of the new brand of congressional Republicans — describe the relationship between the right flanks in the House and Senate as dictatorial. They argue Cruz and Lee come over to the lower chamber and deliver legislative marching orders that are difficult to achieve, like insisting on defunding the president’s primary legislative achievement. Democrats are quick to seize on that tension, urging that “reasonable” Republicans show some courage and stand up to the right and joking of a “Speaker Cruz” pulling the strings in the House.
House conservatives dispute this dim view of the congressional GOP’s intraparty relations.
“People believe that they come and try to influence the House of Representatives. These are folks that are on the Senate side that we have invited over to speak with us,” said Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.). “That’s perfectly appropriate. And we all had one goal. One: fund the government. Two: protect our constituents from the harmful effects of Obamacare.”
An aide to a conservative senator explained that House members and their staffs also are trying to take advantage of a comparative wealth of experience in Senate offices, where members have larger and more seasoned staffs. A Senate office might have several staffers who are comfortable communicating with the news media, for example, while a freshman House member may be relying on a fresh-faced staffer from the campaign to handle reporters hungry to get the inside scoop.
There’s a common belief among top Republicans that these conservatives operate with one policy goal in mind: to undermine GOP leadership. Both Bridenstine and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) voted against John Boehner in his reelection bid for the speakership in January. Cruz and Lee were openly critical of House leadership’s opening bid in last month’s government funding wars: A proposal that would have allowed the House to pass a bill defunding Obamacare that the Senate could have easily dismissed, tagged as “procedural chicanery” by Cruz.
But since the House accepted conservatives’ insistence that Obamacare be defunded, these members decry their “coup caucus” tag by top GOP aides as unfair. In fact, they say the episode strengthened conservative support for Boehner, who is credited by many tea party members for backing their fight as long as he could. Any talk of working against him or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is off base, the conservatives say.
“Something I’ve never seen happen in any of my bicameral meetings is [senators] talk about what to do with our leadership — or us to talk about what to do with their leadership,” Massie said.
“There’s nothing nefarious about these meetings,” added Bridenstine.
If the fight over defunding Obamacare, keeping the government open and raising the debt ceiling marked a new high water mark for conservative influence on Capitol Hill, the question turns to how to wield that power in future battles. There are plenty of opportunities: A bicameral budget conference will start within days, government funding expires in January and the debt ceiling will again need to be raised before the next election.
Cruz has vowed to continue his Obamacare broadside, but some House members seem content to let the health care law twist in the wind after a rough rollout.
“I’m just laughing. I know it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Massie said of Obama’s assurances it will soon improve.
“I’m fine with not talking about Obamacare right now because the American people are experiencing it,” Stutzman said.
Instead, House members said broad fiscal issues like entitlement spending and bread-and-butter spending cuts will likely dominate their agenda in the coming months — and their entreaties to leadership. There are questions about whether their power — particularly that of Cruz and Lee — is on the downswing after the politically damaging shutdown.
Multiple members of one state’s House delegation already have approached their senator to say they will no longer march behind Cruz and Lee, one Senate source said.
“They will not follow them anymore,” the source said. “They have lost influence.”
But conservatives believe that with each congressional primary, each special election and each major legislative development, Republicans in Congress will look and act more and more like them. And they are looking to reinforce bridges among conservatives inside and outside Congress to clarify the conservative position on any given issue.
“I’ve had a real complaint all along that we don’t communicate with the other body nearly enough. For instance, Senate Republicans will come out and do something without consideration for where we stand on it and then we have to deal with it as though they’re the other party,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). “Oftentimes the issues that we deal with, it’s debatable which is the more conservative or more pro-Republican position.”