GOP and conservative groups: The breakup begins
By: Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman
December 12, 2013 07:10 PM EST
House Republicans and big money conservative groups are going through a breakup.
Groups like FreedomWorks and Heritage Action demanded Republicans reject Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget deal — or else.
But 169 Republicans approved it anyway Thursday night.
And even though the deal itself was relatively small, it’s still a big moment for House Republicans.
For the first time since they took back the House in 2010, a strong majority of Republicans have rejected the political absolutism encouraged by the professional right that mired Congress in gridlock for years and culminated in a government shutdown this fall.
Speaker John Boehner could barely contain his glee as he knocked the outsiders for the second time in two days on Thursday afternoon.“Frankly I think they’re misleading their followers, I think they’re pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be, and frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility,” Boehner said during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill.
The groups — usually glad to cause a ruckus — have hardly responded, even when the writing was on the wall Wednesday.
While conservative leaders signed a group statement on Wednesday condemning the Hill activity, there is little evidence that they are prepared this time to execute the kind of concrete steps they have during other big debates.
The most they could muster Thursday was the release a photo of a Republican Study Committee staffer, Paul Teller, who was ousted Wednesday for allegedly dealing with the conservative groups. They labeled him a true conservative and used “#TeamTeller” on social media.
But unlike during the government shutdown of October, groups didn’t organize a flood of phone calls to urge lawmakers to vote against the budget. It ended up passing without a peep, even though some outside groups urged lawmakers to vote against it.
House Republicans have downplayed how tethered they are to outside GOP groups – whose coffers are filled to the brim with conservative cash.
“There’s a lot of frustration out there and it boiled over yesterday, and I’m hoping people will understand that we all are in this together and we have to figure out how to move forward and govern while representing our principles,” Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) said.
Unlike the past, Republicans are criticizing these groups in broad stroke — they’re calling them out for specific misstatements. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who chairs the House Rules Committee, said some conservative figures were spreading rumors that this budget deal would provide a pathway to complete a comprehensive immigration reform, or enact strict gun control.
“Every single member wants to be able to effectively communicate with their people that are back home or groups that they are interested in about what the real bills are about,” Sessions said Thursday. “It frustrates people when theoretically they are on your same team.”
The Scalise episode is perhaps the clearest encapsulation of the split. Teller, who has served on the Hill for more than a decade, was cozy with groups like Heritage Action, and operated within the conservative world both on Capitol Hill and downtown. But Scalise was fed up with him, and canvassed RSC members about how they would feel if he tried to oust them. He knew it would be a controversial decision, but he found support from most Republicans, according to multiple lawmakers who had conversations with him.
Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), a founding member of the RSC, put out a statement affirming his “complete confidence” and “support” for Scalise.
The right-wing groups say they’ve lost no clout. Heritage Action’s Dan Holler said that the budget deal passing isn’t a signal of any lessening of outside conservative groups and that they will continue their strategy.
“We’ve had a ton of great conversations with members and staff over the past couple of days,” Holler said, noting that lawmakers are going to have a hard time selling their vote on the budget back home. “There is a world outside of Washington and these members are accountable to their constituents.”
Conservatives have already begun a hard pivot to the 2014 elections.
L. Brent Bozell, the veteran conservative figure who is chairman of For America, said House Republican leadership is ginning up the grassroots conservative universe.
“There’s nothing I can I can do at this point to gin up support for the Republican Party within the conservative base,” Bozell said. “At the end of the day, I think Republicans are going to rethink this or what you are going to hear is the sound of doors closing all over America.”
Holler said if Boehner is moving in a “different direction,” and away from conservatives, that will have a “significant impact on policy.” Boehner allies say that he’s wresting the mantle of conservative back from these outside actors.
Matt Hoskins, the executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, said primaries are in order.
“The solution here is for conservatives to work together to replace these Republicans in the primary elections with true conservatives,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund. “This is why the 2014 primaries are so important. If conservatives rise up, they can regain control of the party. If they stay home, the establishment will remain in power and continue to help the Democrats enact their liberal agenda.”
Members aligned with and sympathetic to these groups say Boehner is walking on egg shells. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said Boehner’s strategy was “dangerous” and would backfire.
“That’s how you set it up to lose elections,” said the Kansas Republican, who has often been at odds with GOP leaders. “This is real stuff. When those conservative groups say there is a problem in Washington, they get tens of thousands of people to call in… They are effective because they represent a lot of people.”