Marin Cogan and Jake Sherman
Some veteran Republican House members are pushing back against conservative deficit hawks who are pushing for endlessly deep spending cuts, saying the right wing of the party is creating unnecessary divisions for the GOP majority.
While the 54 Republicans who voted against the most recent stopgap spending bill didn’t derail the legislation, some GOP lawmakers are becoming increasingly wary of a faction that rejects substantial spending cuts because they want deeper ones or the inclusion of divisive social policy riders.
Many of the critics are close to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who struggles more each day to keep his majority unified as a three-month spending showdown threatens to spill into April. The House passed $6 billion of spending cuts Tuesday, to bring the total cut to $10 billion.
“Yep, it is surprising,” Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson said of the difficulty convincing hard-liners that the leadership is cutting large amounts of spending. “I mean, this is three weeks; we’re cutting $6 billion. You know? It is surprising. This is the only time in my life where I can cut $6 billion in a three-week period and be called a liberal.”
Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette, an appropriator close to Boehner, said Republicans are seeing a “constant tension” between “the Democratic Party that talks about cuts but doesn’t want to cut anything, and then you have my side, that wants to cut anything that moves.
“That creates this dynamic tension, and you have people in my party that are angry that we are not adding riders, or shutting down the government, things like that, but this is exactly what people expect us to do — find cuts and continue to talk,” LaTourette said.
Other Republicans are quietly complaining that a few bombastic members of their conference who regularly appear on TV create an outsize perception of pressure.
At the center of the debate is the 87-strong freshman class. Most of its members voted “yes” on the resolution, bucking the perception they would be a rogue bloc opposing the GOP spending measure. But 22 freshmen voted no. In fact, many conservatives feel emboldened by the freshmen, even if they don’t match up on votes.
Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, a Republican freshman, called his “yes” vote a “no-brainer,” saying he “cut spending” and kept the government open. “Clearly, there are some folks on the left and right who have other agenda items, but my goal is to cut spending.”
Illinois Rep. Robert Dold, another Republican freshman, said calling the freshmen a rogue bunch wouldn’t be entirely accurate.
“Certainly, the freshmen are motivated,” Dold said. “They are motivated to create an environment that’s positive for private-sector job creation and motivated to rein in out-of-control government spending, but I think a lot of things happening right now, they’re going to claim it’s freshmen, when in fact it could be others in the caucus that are trying to drive some things.”
Others suggested there was very little daylight between the members voting for or against the bill.
“Look, there’s no difference in where we all want to go; the only difference is that in some cases the tactics are different. People always make their own decisions, and we ultimately realize we have to make cuts of $2 billion a week,” said Illinois freshman GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who supported the continuing resolution.
Increasingly, the narrative emerging is a classic one, more about hard-liners vs. pragmatists than freshmen vs. leadership. But that tension is exacerbated by the number of outside activists closely watching the spending debate.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), an appropriator who backed the bill Tuesday, said there are “435 people [in Congress and] each one thinks they have the franchise on turning America around. And so what we’re going through, some of it is growing pains, some of it is government pains, and we’ll get there.
“I think the frustration is with those of us who have a legislative scar or two,” he said, “because of our years of seeing things and having seen people come and go, we’ve seen negotiations melt down; we’ve seen if you can’t get 218 people from our party, we have to go to the other party and that makes a worse product; and some of us still remember the government shutdown, which isn’t as bad as people think, but it wasn’t a walk in the park. We need to have unity; there’s strength in unity but not a blind unity.”
Perhaps nothing illustrates the tension better than the dustup between House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence during a closed-door House Republican Conference meeting Tuesday morning.
When Pence announced he would vote against the bill, McCarthy asked why he would vote for H.R. 1 but not the three-week measure under consideration. Pence said the nation is adding $2 billion in debt each day. But McCarthy pressed on — wanting to know how Pence was helping reduce the debt by voting against the bill.
“How much are you cutting?” McCarthy asked Pence, according to sources inside the room.
Later, McCarthy’s office released a statement that “Mike Pence is a good friend of mine. We were simply having a conversation about the best way to achieve our goal of cutting spending.”
Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who once served as chief of staff at the Republican National Committee, said the conservatives should be pushing hard for additional cuts, but the right “diminishes their own accomplishment when they diminish” the cuts.
“I think it’s usually wiser to vote with the Republican leader than with Nancy Pelosi if you’re a Republican,” Cole told POLITICO. “I think politically that’s a harder vote to explain at home than voting with John Boehner. I don’t see anything to be gained that way.”
“At the end of the day, politics is a team sport,” Cole said. “The only two things you can do as a member of the House on your own is hire and fire your staff and cast one vote. If you really want to get something done, you have to be part of a team that can muster 218 and work with the Senate and the president. That’s just the way the founders set up the system. ... And that’s going to make it difficult for you to always get what you want.”
Some lawmakers say that isn’t enough. In the run-up to the vote, roughly a dozen members, including Pence and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, stepped forward to say they wouldn’t support the spending measure. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is readying a letter to Boehner to urge him to take further action on cutting off health care funding.
In fact, the idea that it’s not enough to slash $10 billion is ludicrous to some lawmakers — especially longer-serving Republicans. In private conversations around the Capitol, they are growing increasingly frustrated with the cavalcade of outside groups, talking heads and conservative lawmakers who seem to be driving the debate. Pairing with outside groups, such as Heritage Action, they’re providing the leadership with headaches.
“I think the endgame is the deal has to be struck,” LaTourette told POLITICO. “Hopefully, the pressure will mount from the advocacy groups that you have to find the common ground. I know that’s what the speaker’s working toward. The common ground.”