GOP moderates vow to speak louder
By: Seung Min Kim
November 3, 2013 05:10 PM EST
Moderate House Republicans say they’re fed up.
The next time around, they won’t stand for the ill-fated defund Obamacare strategy that ended up paralyzing the federal government for 16 days and crippling their party’s approval numbers. And unlike their fellow Republicans sitting in conservative districts, it’s moderates who will be on the front lines in the 2014 elections.
While there doesn’t appear to be an organized strategy among the handful of moderates still in the GOP-led House, they say they’ll speak with a much louder — and cohesive — voice in the next round of budget wars. The moderates want to avoid a repeat of the shutdown, but it’s unclear whether they’ll have sufficient clout to counterbalance their more conservative colleagues, who spoke with one powerful voice when it came to the shutdown.
“I can assure you that the next time around, people are going to have their eyes wide open,” said Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, who represents a moderate district in eastern Pennsylvania. “I believe there will be a lot of folks speaking up. Aggressively, in fact.”
New York Rep. Peter King, Ted Cruz’s chief GOP antagonist on Capitol Hill, said congressional Republicans need to specifically target the freshman senator — who has not ruled out another government shutdown in his continuing crusade against the president’s health care law.
In an interview, the never-subtle King suggested several messages that Republicans could use to counterbalance Cruz: “Ted Cruz cost the economy $24 billion” and “Ted Cruz forced the Republican Party to its lowest levels ever and in that period, made Obamacare more popular.”
Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the Texas Republican, responded that “Americans are interested in what their elected officials are doing to defend their interests, not in bickering among politicians.”
King also said lawmakers need to make their case against any doomed budget strategy to their leadership early and often — and both privately during Republican Conference meetings and publicly to the news media.
“We have to be more outspoken upfront,” King said. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) “were all the ones being targeted by these guys and … it made it harder for them to push back.”
Republican Rep. Patrick Meehan, who like Dent hails from a moderate Pennsylvania district, said an increased dialogue among House Republicans is already happening, and he was optimistic that those conversations would help the GOP conference show a united front in fiscal discussions with the Democratic-led Senate and the White House.
“We’re probably going to do more to talk to ourselves to try to be a little bit more unified and to put some thought into where we think we ought to be,” Meehan said. “I think people appreciate that when you eliminate yourself from negotiations, you’re operating from a position of weakness.”
Meehan was among the earliest House Republicans to urge his colleagues to give up their strategy of trying to defund Obamacare by ending government funding — a tactic that led to the first federal government shutdown in 17 years. Frustration from Meehan and lawmakers like him was evident during the fiscal fight, but concrete attempts from moderates to quash the strategy repeatedly fizzled.
Now, moderates will try to regroup with deadlines looming early next year: one in mid-January to fund the government and another in February to allow the government to continue borrowing money.
In the first days of the shutdown, Dent spearheaded a bipartisan House effort with Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) to write legislation that would fund the government and repeal an unpopular medical device tax. But Democratic and Republican leaders asked their members not to sign it, and the move never gained traction.
And a planned procedural rebellion on the House floor in the final hours before the federal government officially shut down sputtered out. King, among the more publicly frustrated House Republicans, had said as many as 25 of his colleagues would vote against a rule that would allow the GOP’s funding bill — with Obamacare strings attached — to be brought to the House floor. Doing so would have sent a blunt message from moderates that they were fed up with their conference’s strategy of trying to dismantle Obamacare through the must-pass spending bill.
In the end, only six Republicans ultimately opposed the rule — and four of them did so because they felt the legislation was insufficiently conservative.
On the other hand, conservatives adamant on slaying Obamacare had a clear strategy.
In July, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) spearheaded a letter from 14 Senate Republicans, proclaiming that they would not provide votes for government spending bills that did not defund Obamacare. One month later, during the doldrums of a congressional recess, 80 House Republicans signed a letter to their leadership, calling for any government funding bill to deny money for the health care law.
Hard-core conservatives huddled at Capitol Hill-area haunts — such as the notorious meetup at Tortilla Coast in the final days of the shutdown war. And of course, Cruz embarked on a marathon speech against Obamacare that captured national attention.
One House Democrat said House GOP moderates need to take bolder moves to make their point, such as voting against a procedural rule — even if it means publicly defying their own leadership to do so.
“The other side of their caucus is willing to vote against the speaker to show its power,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said. “They don’t respect all those niceties of the legislative process. I’m not saying abandon it always, but once in a while, how about coming out of the stable and showing you can prance?”
Ex-Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), another moderate and former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said moderates need to make their voices heard in the next round of budget fights — particularly for political survival, since another replay of the shutdown fight would only further damage the GOP brand.
“They tend to be [from] some of the more moderate swing districts,” Davis said in an interview. “Out of necessity, they have to say to the leadership, no more antics. These are the guys who are willing to compromise.”
Dent expressed optimism that a House-Senate budget conference, which had its first meeting last week, will successfully produce a framework for a deal that could include some changes to entitlements, elements of tax reform, and perhaps some tweaks to Obamacare, such as repealing the medical device tax or changing the definition of a full-time employee.
Expectations across Capitol Hill are low for the budget conference, and lawmakers sitting on the bicameral panel are mostly focused on coming up with a result for the current fiscal year — rather than the ever-elusive grand bargain.
“I’m hoping that lessons have been learned,” Dent said of a shutdown threat. “Again, there’s really no wisdom gained by the second kick of the mule here.”
The frustration among the more moderate members of the Republican Conference is still palpable, nearly three weeks after the shutdown ended.
“The time has come for members who believe that the gridlock is absolutely unacceptable to speak with a bolder voice, and to put clarity on this issue and advance specific alternatives as well,” Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) said.