Tribalism Threatens GOP Senate Chances in 2014
Policy + Politics

Tribalism Threatens GOP Senate Chances in 2014

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The bipartisan budget deal approved by the House Thursday evening is manna from heaven for the Democrats.        

The controversial blueprint negotiated by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget chief Patty Murray (D-WA) lifts onerous spending caps that forced tough cuts this year in Head Start, NIH research and a vast array of other domestic programs important to Democratic constituents, and restores much of that spending. It passed the house Thursday evening with strong support from both parties, 332 to 94.

At the same time, it has touched off a civil war within the GOP that potentially could undermine the Republicans' prospects for regaining control of the Senate next year.

Related: Congressional Odd Couple Finally Strikes a Budget Deal

Capitol Hill is being treated to the specter of a splintering of Republican forces, with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and many of his lieutenants vigorously backing the Ryan-Murray compromise. In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and a large majority of Republican members are likely to oppose the plan when it is brought to a vote next week.

Boehner has lashed out at highly influential outside conservative groups including Club for Growth and Heritage Action for opposing the deal, saying on Thursday that they had crossed a line and lost their credibility by declaring their opposition even before reading the compromise. Heritage Action announced that it would include the budget vote in its annual legislative scorecard.

“This budget agreement takes giant steps in the right direction,” Boehner told reporters. “But when groups come out and criticize something they’ve never seen, you begin to wonder just how credible those actions are.”

More than 50 high-profile conservative activists signed onto a statement Wednesday responding to both House Speaker John Boehner’s harsh words for conservative groups earlier in the day and the firing of the Republican Study Committee’s longtime executive director, Paul Teller, who became too closely allied with the outside groups. “It is clear that the conservative movement has come under attack on Capitol Hill today,” the statement reads.

Related: Deficit Reduction - Far Less Than Meets the Eye

The largely split-the-difference agreement would boost discretionary spending for most domestic and Pentagon programs to $1.012 trillion in the current fiscal year, compared to the $967 billion in spending under the current law, after sequester cuts were scheduled to take effect in January. Spending would total $1.014 trillion in fiscal 2015, which begins next Oct. 1.

The compromise also offsets the additional spending with increased fees on airline passengers, added pension costs for new federal employees and members of the military and other gimmicks. And–as a sop to Ryan and the Republicans–it includes measures that would result in a net deficit reduction of $23 billion over the next 10 years, although much of those savings would come at the tail end of the decade.

Ryan spent Thursday fending off Republican criticism of his plan – including from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) - a potential presidential rival in 2016. In summing up his defense of the bill he worked out with Murray prior to the final vote, Ryan declared, “This is good government. It’s also divided government. And under divided government, we need to take steps in the right direction. And to make divided government work, you can’t ask each other to compromise on core principles. Because we don’t do that here. We ask each other to find some common ground to advance the common good. And that’s what this agreement does.”

Boehner, who for months seemed spineless in regularly bowing to demands of arch conservative and Tea Party members of his conference on the budget, debt ceiling and Obamacare, has been masterful in the past day or two in putting his conservative nemeses in their place.

Yesterday he began to push back against conservative critics who complained the deal permits too much new spending, puts off further deficit reduction for years, and allows back-door taxation with increased airline passenger fees to cover security costs.

The conservative groups are threatening to challenge Republican lawmakers in primaries next year if they go along with a compromise that violates conservative fiscal and budgetary tenets. But Boehner declared he was disgusted with these groups dictating policy to his members – a political dynamic that over the past three years has fostered partisan gridlock, repeated threats of default on the U.S. debt and a 16-day government shutdown in October.

“They are using our members, and they are using the American people for their own goals,” Boehner said. “This is ridiculous.”

Related: Boehner’s Credibility Wanes As Shutdown Crisis Mounts

“The psychology of this is fascinating,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “Speaker Boehner stuck to the party line in October that the government shutdown was necessary and warranted, and would produce a GOP win. He knew better even then.

“The shutdown was unmitigated disaster for Republicans,” he added. “The longer Boehner has had to stew in the bitter juices of that folly, the angrier he has gotten at those who put him in an unwinnable position. The Speaker now senses that enough of the GOP House rank-and-file got tired of being political piñatas in October, and so now he can say what he really thinks about the conservative groups that pushed the House off the cliff.”

Meanwhile, in the Senate, McConnell and other senior Republican leaders are resisting the budget deal, insisting that it increases spending too much without requiring more immediate cuts in return, according to Politico. McConnell – who is facing a potentially difficult reelection campaign next year and is wary of offending Tea Party adherents - is widely expected to oppose the proposal. His top leadership deputies also raised concerns on Wednesday, highlighting a growing cleft within the party over budget policy.

“I’m not happy about busting the spending caps,” said John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate GOP whip. “Particularly, all along, I said that if that was going to happen, it would have to be for something really meaningful in terms of shoring up Social Security and Medicare. It looks like it will just increase fees, which is another way to increase spending.”

There is little doubt that the Senate can pass the budget resolution next week when it comes up for a vote, especially since at least a handful of Republicans are certain to join with the majority Democrats to pass the legislation and send it on to President Obama for his signature. But the showdown is breeding bad blood among the Republicans.

Yesterday, the conservative Republican Study Committee, a group of the most conservative members of the House, fired Teller, its longtime executive director, accusing him of leaking conversations with lawmakers to his allies among the outside conservative groups and actively working again RSC strategies.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, told reporters that he fired Teller because he no longer had the “trust” of lawmakers. “We all rely on staff, but we have to have the full trust of our staff. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case,” Scalise said.

Passage of the bipartisan deal will undoubtedly reverberate throughout the party for months to come and potentially serve as a distraction from the GOP’s relentless attacks on Obamacare.

The outside conservative groups will try to punish some members for a ‘yes’ vote on the budget deal, but the larger the number of GOP ayes, the harder it will be to wage primary war on the whole bunch of them, according to Sabato.

“Most Republican House members will get a pass - this time,” he said. “Further deviations from the groups’ set of principles will result in more human sacrifice in primaries or a lack of November funding.”

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: