Boehner Under Siege from Conservative Groups
Policy + Politics

Boehner Under Siege from Conservative Groups

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) lambasted the Club for Growth and other outside conservative groups last December for opposing a bipartisan budget deal before they even had read it.

Boehner  angrily dismissed the  groups as “misleading” and without “credibility” while pointing to a series of bipartisan deals that passed the House on its last legislative day of 2013 as the sort of “common ground” that should provide a new path for congressional work.

Some of those groups returned the favor this week after Boehner allowed the House to pass new debt-ceiling legislation without extracting spending cuts or major policy concessions from President Obama.

Related: Ending Debt Limit “Uncertainty” May Not Help the Economy

Chris Chocola, a former House member who now heads the Club for Growth, skewered Boehner in an on-line op-ed piece decrying the Speaker’s leadership on the debt ceiling,  the farm bill and last December’s budget deal  that lifted the sequester for two years and put off deficit reduction for a decade.

“When Speaker of the House John Boehner said that conservative groups like the Club for Growth have been ‘misleading their followers’ and have ‘lost all credibility,’ I didn’t pay much attention to it,” Chocola wrote on National Review Online.

“The Republican party, by and large, doesn’t really believe in much of anything other than maintaining its tenuous grip on power,” he wrote. “How else do you explain voting to raise the debt ceiling by billions of dollars this week when Speaker John Boehner had literally called it the ‘Boehner Principle’ that ‘any debt limit must be accompanied by spending cuts and reforms of a greater amount.”

Chocola stopped short of calling for Boehner to step down. But earlier this week, the Tea Party-backed Senate Conservatives Fund called for the speaker’s ouster.

In an email Senate Conservatives Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins wrote, “Republicans are giving up because they know that winning is impossible when their leaders are determined to lose. These leaders have telegraphed weakness to the Democrats and sabotaged conservative efforts so many times that Republicans now have no leverage. There's only one solution. John Boehner must be replaced as Speaker of the House.

Related: Tribalism Threatens GOP Senate Chances in 2014

Boehner’s spokesman couldn’t be reached for a comment on Thursday. However, the feud between Boehner and a fleet of well-funded, ideologically pure outside political action groups has been festering for the past two to three years.

Many of those Washington-based groups, including Heritage Action for America, FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth, are wrapped in the Tea Party banner and boast of increasing political clout. Since 2006, for example, the Club for Growth’s political action committee helped nearly 50 endorsed candidates get elected to Congress, according to Chocola.

“Some of the party’s brightest stars – Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Ted Cruz of Texas, congressmen Ron DeSantis of Florida and Justin Amash of Michigan – were elected with strong Club member support,” Chocola boasted.

With their command of huge campaign war chests and well disciplined media strategies, these groups are playing king maker in closely contested primary races where right wing challengers are attempting to topple more pragmatic or “establishment” Republicans.

Veteran Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, a Republican moderate and ally of Boehner, is being challenged aggressively in the Republican primary by Bryan Smith, a conservative attorney who enjoys solid backing from the Club for Growth. Freshman Rep. David Joyce of Ohio, another moderate, is under attack within his own party from Matt Lynch, a state legislator who touts his religious faith and conservative values.

Related: Republican House Moderates Fight for Survival

Few politicians have a worse job than Boehner. Almost from the day he took the reins of the House in January 2011, the speaker has struggled to lead an unruly GOP conference and endure repeated setbacks at the hands of his own members.

Conservatives thwarted their Speaker from concluding a “Grand Bargain” budget and tax deal with President Obama and later precipitated a crisis over the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011 that nearly led to the first ever default on U.S. debt.

Boehner was narrowly reelected Speaker in early January 2013 after he survived a mini-rebellion among the most conservative members of the GOP caucus to win his second term. Twelve Republicans defected, with 10 voting for other conservatives and two abstaining.

Related: How Boehner and Obama Blew a Promising Partnership

The Speaker was humiliated again late that year when he was forced to pull back his “Plan B” for averting the fiscal cliff. And just recently, he had to reverse his efforts to pass immigration reform this year after conservatives opposed his call for granting legal status to many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

Yet Boehner has scored some tactical budget victories over Obama and pushed through legislative reforms in the House, including barring the use of special interest earmarks on spending bills.

Moreover, the House vote last December to approve a two-year budget deal was a turning point for Boehner because he could point to the reduced chances of another government shutdown and the end to the cycle of crisis budgeting that has plagued Washington for years.

By lashing out at the Club for Growth and other outside critics of a deal forged by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Speaker seemingly galvanized many rank and file Republicans.

Whether Boehner can hang onto his job after the November mid-term election – or whether he will even want the job by then – remains to be seen. A lot may depend on how successful the outside groups are in electing more conservative members to the House who might oppose Boehner in the next leadership election. But for now, there’s no indication that sharp attacks from outside conservative groups will be enough to topple the affable and earnest Speaker.

Ron Bonjean, a former House Republican leadership spokesman, said on Wednesday that “It’s unlikely these groups are going to make much of an impact.”

“In terms of the way Washington works, it would have stolen the show away from Obamacare” if Boehner had allowed his members to precipitate another crisis over the debt ceiling, Bonjean said in an interview. “In the end, the Republicans would have had to capitulate to a ‘clean’ debt ceiling bill and suffered the political consequences [of another crisis] with the public.”

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