John Boehner ended a turbulent legislative year rated the least productive in history by doing something that may have surprised both his supporters and his detractors: He showed some spine.
The typically reserved House speaker turned heads on Capitol Hill this week by twice berating conservative outside groups that have continually tormented his tenure. “Frankly, I just think they've lost all credibility,” he told reporters Thursday after those groups decried the spending bill he and other GOP leaders had backed.
That evening, the House of Representatives passed it – the first bipartisan budget agreement in years – drawing support from a majority of Republicans and upholding the so-called Hastert Rule by which Boehner and conservatives like to abide.
The speaker will ring in the New Year much differently than he did the last one. For starters, he and his colleagues will be in their districts, not at the Capitol -- and staring over the edge of a fiscal cliff -- when the clock strikes midnight. And secondly, Boehner’s job isn't at risk.
The question is: What will happen when lawmakers return in January? Having stood up to the right, will the speaker handle other issues, like immigration, in the same fashion? Is this the start of a concentrated backlash from GOP moderates?
“There’s been a push-back, but it hasn’t been public before. And I think the speaker’s comments were very important, because I think they’re absolutely accurate,” Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, a Boehner ally, told RCP. (Simpson is facing a primary challenge from a candidate picked by members of the Club for Growth.) “Many of us were glad he spoke out,” he said.
“John Boehner is one of the people most careful with his words. He is disciplined, and if he said something, he says it because he wants to send a message,” California Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the Oversight Committee, told reporters outside the House chamber.
“I would never say John Boehner throws a line away. I would say just the opposite: that he recognizes it’s time for him to say Chairman Ryan got all he could get, under the current situation, and it’s time for us to move on,” he added.
Boehner aides say their boss’ outrage isn’t the beginning of an orchestrated revolt against conservative groups, nor will it lead to a different way of doing things next year. Instead, it came from rising tension involving organized opposition from House members on the right, and from groups such as Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, and the Club for Growth.
But some lawmakers hope Boehner has set a precedent.
“Hopefully, this is a start of a wake-up to the American people to make sure their congressman is really voting for their constituency and not some group based on their score, whether it be left or right,” said California Rep. Devin Nunes, who was among the most critical of his party during the government shutdown, calling his colleagues “lemmings with suicide vests.”
Longtime House GOP pollster David Winston said the speaker is establishing something of a new threshold for the legislative year: “If you’re going to walk in with a position, you have to have a strategy that is going to work,” Winston said. “What you’ve seen, there are obviously lessons learned in terms of the shutdown. … Part of that was the conference working though how to operate in the future.”
Boehner wasn’t the only GOP leader to push back. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued some stern words earlier this year to the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is financing primary challenges against a number of Republican senators.
Boehner doesn’t appear to be facing any major backlash from members over his comments this week. “I like Speaker Boehner, and part of what people like about him is he has a personality. He says what he believes even if we don’t agree with it,” Michigan Rep. Justin Amash told RCP. The second-term lawmaker was one of several GOP renegades to oppose Boehner’s speakership last year. This time, he says, Boehner’s job shouldn’t be at stake.
But not everyone sees it that way. “I don’t know why the speaker of the House would attack Republican groups,” said Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who has often been a thorn in Boehner’s side. “I’m worried about what happens in 2014, when you stick it in the eye of conservatives and say we don’t need you anymore. That would be a recipe for disaster.”
Huelskamp added: “There’s a real concern on immigration [next year], that we would abandon a clear majority of the Republican Party in passing a comprehensive amnesty-like bill. “
Some outside groups share that concern. “Why now? Why is this the [budget] bill that they’ve chosen to make a choice against conservatives? What does that signal for policies like immigration next year?” Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, told RCP. “He has successfully managed to change the conversation away from Obamacare to the role of outside groups.”
But Boehner won’t be taking any pointers from Heritage or the others. “I don’t care what they do,” he said Thursday.
“You know, they pushed us into this fight to defund Obamacare and shut down the government,” Boehner told reporters. “It wasn’t exactly the strategy I had in mind. But if you recall, the day before the government re-opened, one of the people at one of these groups stood up and said, ‘Well, we never really thought it would work.’ Are you kidding me?”
Boehner's comments coincided with a Gallup poll released this week that found just 30 percent of Americans view the Tea Party movement favorably -- a new low -- while 51 percent dislike it.
Last December, Boehner failed to cajole his conference around a “Plan B” proposal to avoid the fiscal cliff, and took heat for bringing up a bill that failed to extend the Bush tax cuts for high earners and needed Democratic help for passage. The speaker felt similar tension when trying to pass legislation for hurricane relief and a Farm Bill that included food stamp funding.
He had pledged to avoid a shutdown this past fall, but allowed his members to follow a strategy heralded by Heritage and its ilk, shutting down the government if the short-term budget included Obamacare funding.
Quickly, GOP approval numbers went from bad to worse.
But interestingly, Boehner’s standing among his members, even some of those who had been most critical of him in the past, rose. Many House Republicans saw their leader as fighting for them until the very end, and talk of taking him down subsided. They then shifted their sights to a timely political opportunity: the troubled rollout of the health care law.
While budget issues have been especially problematic for this Congress, GOP leaders hoped to put it behind them, avoid another shutdown that could damage their approval ratings further, and focus on the Affordable Care Act heading into the midterm year. So when the outside groups spoke out against the Ryan-Murray budget agreement before details were released, Boehner headed to his weekly conference meeting “with a full head of steam,” in the words of one GOP aide. There was a feeling of “we let you guys try it and you drove the car right into a cliff,” the aide said.
This week, some members appear to have gotten an education about the limits of GOP power in Washington, given divided government. Some members who blasted the deal were also mindful of Paul Ryan’s task.
For his part, the Budget Committee chairman also had a stern message for critics on the right. “To really do what we think needs to be done, we are going to have to win some elections,” he said on the House floor before the vote.