POLITICS: PennAve

John Boehner's attack on conservative groups was mix of simmering frustration and strategic calculation

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Congress,John Boehner,David M. Drucker,PennAve,Budgets and Deficits,Government Shutdown,House Republicans

House Speaker John Boehner's harsh words for outside conservative groups that have made running the House so difficult were expected. That the usually unflappable Ohio Republican would express his displeasure so publicly was not.

In the 48 hours before the House vote on a budget compromise needed to avoid a second government shutdown, Boehner twice publicly castigated Tea Party-aligned groups for rejecting the budget compromise before even seeing it, and charged that the groups were profiting from the controversies they help create. He warned his House Republicans not to "surrender" their votes to the groups.

Unlike Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s calculated attack on just one of the groups, the Senate Conservatives Fund, Boehner didn’t single out any group by name in a verbal attack that Republican aides characterized as spontaneous.

But Boehner's unusually aggressive posture appeared to be more than impulsive. Political operatives who have observed Boehner up close said the speaker could be signaling his intent to be far less accommodating to a conservative faction of his party that has often been critical of his leadership.

A senior House Republican aide told the Washington Examiner that Boehner's “level of frustration has been building for quite some time.” A former aide to Boehner said the speaker is hardening his leadership style after his previous efforts at accommodation led to a politically disastrous government shutdown.

“Those tactics didn't work and now John is making an effort to chart a better course for the conference — one that will actually help position Republicans for greater gains,” said the former aide. “While it was in the best interest of the conference to keep things inside the family before, now it's important to make his point clear to both supporters and critics.”

Boehner’s legislative and political agenda has been stymied time and again by a host of Tea Party-aligned, conservative advocacy groups that often appear to have more influence with House Republicans than the speaker.

After siding with conservatives in the October budget fight that led to the shutdown, Boehner was determined to pass a new budget agreement that would avoid another shutdown in January.

The budget compromise worked out by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., extended federal spending through 2015. It didn't raise taxes, as Democrats wanted, but it did soften sequester-driven budget cuts, a Democratic priority that conservatives opposed.

Boehner believed he could not ask his members, particularly those facing primary challenges next year, to vote for the legislation absent a muscular promotion of the deal’s conservative virtues, Republican insiders said.

Boehner was also concerned that if the Ryan-Murray deal collapsed, Republicans who wanted to restore some of the sequester budget cuts to protect the Pentagon might strike a deal with Democrats that would raise taxes to erase those cuts. That would have split the Republican majority and further hurt the party in the 2014 elections and Boehner was determined not to let that happen.

But the speaker was also bucking the groups to protect Ryan, a close ally and a party leader on budget issues who the groups were attacking for agreeing to the deal.

The Ryan-Murray budget deal also could pay off for Boehner down the road as a template for avoiding politically debilitating budget fights at a time when Democrats still govern the Senate and White House.The House approved the Murray-Ryan deal with a strong majority of Republicans and Boehner hopes that sets the stage for more strategic compromises that could be politically necessary in 2014.

House Republicans close to Boehner and GOP insiders who monitor Capitol Hill predict that the speaker is likely to take a harder line against the outside groups throughout 2014 in part because Boehner believes this is a message a majority of his own members are eager for him to deliver.

“The conference is moving to understand that in order to be a conservative you have to be fighting [for] conservative values and ideas and shutdown politics is not conservative,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said.

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