Even before Barack Obama double-dared them to cough up their own budget, House Republican leaders were quietly drafting a set of conservative budget principles to convince voters – and their own rank-and-file – that they aren’t just The Party of No.
Minority Leader John Boehner, Minority Whip Eric Cantor, GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence and Rep. Paul Ryan worked for weeks on a plan, staffers say, without any serious philosophical disagreements.
But over time, Cantor-Ryan and Boehner-Pence camps split over questions of tactics and timing.
Pence, with Boehner’s blessing, wanted to unveil an abbreviated “blueprint” Thursday to counter Obama’s criticism and arm members with new talking points heading into this weekend – even if it meant that their plan wouldn’t have much in the way of details.
Cantor and Ryan wanted to wait until Ryan’s staff produced a fully-fleshed-out alternative to Obama’s $3.6 trillion spending plan, with specific numbers on spending and tax cuts – even if it meant waiting a few more days to get it out.
Cantor and Ryan ultimately caved in, and what they got was the worst of both worlds: a thin, glossy “blueprint” that was ridiculed by Democrats and cable news anchors, and a nasty internecine scrap that culminated with one GOP aide telling POLITICO that Pence had thrown Ryan “under the bus” in an “egocentric rush” to grab the spotlight.
Privately, some Republicans are worried that the split over the budget blueprint portends the kind of internal squabbling that afflicted the party during the height of its power at the beginning of the Bush administration.
“It was an unmitigated disaster,” said one House GOP aide of the Thursday roll-out. “We’ve got to figure out why this happened — and fix things fast.”
Thursday’s four-car pile-up wasn’t the first for the four GOP leaders. Six weeks ago, they were able to hold their conference together in two unanimous votes against the Democrats’ $787 billion stimulus package six weeks ago. But last week, the Boehner-Pence and Cantor-Ryan camps split publicly over publicly over the Democratic bill imposing a 90 percent tax on bonuses paid to executives at AIG and other bailed-out firms.
Boehner, in his typically blunt style, described the measure as the ultimate “CYA” bill – shortly before Cantor, his No. 2, stood in the well of the House to cast his vote in favor of it.
Republicans split nearly down the middle on the bill – much to the amusement of House Democrats, who are accustomed to being the butt of the can’t-herd-the-cats jokes. Worse still, Ryan divided with himself. After voting in favor of the bill last week, he said this week that he wished he hadn’t.
While the budget “blueprint” press conference – and its fallout – has put the spotlight back on the relationship between Boehner and Cantor, Thursday’s events actually exposed simmering tensions between aides to Cantor and Pence, those with knowledge of the situation say.
The two men don't have a history of antagonism, but Boehner tapped Pence for the role of Conference chairman, in large part, because Pence was outside Cantor’s expanding circle of influence – unlike Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, an early contender for the job who is close to the Virginia Republican.
As whip, Cantor has moved beyond the traditional role of vote counter, adopting some of Pence’s duties as conference chairman by focusing on communication and messaging. Still, this is the first dust-up between the two offices – and it’s a pillow fight compared to the rolling melee that existed between the likes of Dick Armey, Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay.
All sides circled the wagons on Friday following a senior staff meeting to discuss the episode, and everyone is vwing to put the flare-up behind them. It remains possible that not a single Republican will break ranks next week to vote with the Democrats on the budget.
“This is just junior staff jibber-jabber, and it doesn't change the fact that we've seen more coordination between Republicans in the House and Senate against the budget than I've seen in five congresses," said Rob Collins, Cantor’s deputy chief of staff.
"The leaders’ objective was to release a budget blueprint that members could take back to their districts this weekend before the release of the actual legislative text by Congressman Ryan," Boehner spokesman Dave Schnittger said. "Leader Boehner is pleased with the results."
Schnittger argued that the principles have "forced the distortion artists at the White House to acknowledge that Republicans have a plan. They may not want to cut taxes on America’s small businesses, farms and families, but at least now they’re acknowledging that Republicans will."
But Democrats are clearly savoring the squabble.
The DNC – playing off the dearth of numerical details in the Republicans’ blue print – put out a mocking video Friday “brought to you by the Number 0.”
“Obama’s getting in their heads,” said a senior House Democratic aide. “They are totally obsessed with not being called the Party of No – and it’s forcing them to make mistakes.”