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Boehner in Charge

How the House speaker rallied his restive troops.

Oct 14, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 06 • By FRED BARNES
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Republicans would back budgets that reached balance in 10 years. Rather than soften the mandatory spending cuts of the 10-year “sequester,” they would enforce it fully. They would insist on “regular order” rather than CRs to fund the government​—​that is, pass spending bills, then resolve House-Senate differences in conferences. They would mandate “no budget, no pay” for members of Congress.

The impact of the “no pay” rule was instant. Under Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate hadn’t passed a budget in four years. Soon after the House rule was announced, Reid promised to pass one. And did.

Holding the line on the sequester was important for strategic reasons. It gives Republicans an advantage over Obama. The sequester was a brainstorm of the White House, but the president has grown to loathe its cuts in social spending. He’s eager to replace it, at least partially with tax hikes.

To the delight of Republicans, the sequester turns the tables on Obama. He had the upper hand in the “fiscal cliff” talks. If no deal were reached, higher tax rates would have gone into effect for all taxpayers, a nightmare Republicans wanted to avert. Now, since the sequester’s spending reductions are automatic, it’s Obama who wants a deal with Republicans. Thus, Republicans have a strong card to play in any negotiations.

As sweet as Williamsburg was, getting Boehner to follow through hasn’t been a snap. In Williamsburg, he said he wanted to hear policy ideas from Republican members rather than develop them at the top. This was dubbed the “bubble up” approach. The problem is Boehner hasn’t liked some of the ideas that are bubbling up.

In June, Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana proposed to split the farm bill into two parts, one for farm programs, the other for food stamps. Boehner was opposed and kept the Stutzman proposal from consideration on the House floor. He relented after the undivided farm bill was defeated. Once separated, both a farm bill and a scaled-back food stamp program passed.

That was just the beginning. In July, another group of House conservatives destined to win Boehner over went public. The “Cajun Caucus” had been meeting since early 2011 at the townhouse of Rep. Steve Southerland of Florida a few blocks from the Capitol. Rep. Jeff Landry of Louisiana cooked Cajun food for dinner, thus the name. Landry lost in a 2012 primary.

The class of 2010 dominates the group: Southerland, Labrador, Mulvaney, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, Tom Graves of Georgia. Jordan, a Jedi, also attends. A few elected in 2012 joined the group, notably Mark Meadows of North Carolina. He was invited to a caucus dinner, but missed several subsequent ones. His staff thought Meadows, who isn’t Cajun, had been invited by mistake and declined several invitations.

Meadows, a real estate developer who won his first bid for elective office last year, is an ardent Reaganite. The former president, he says, “was a principled conservative who had a conservative world view and could articulate it compassionately and always find common ground to accomplish it.” That’s Meadows’s ideal.

In July, Meadows circulated a letter to Boehner and Cantor “encouraging” them to defund Obamacare. The letter quickly got 80 signers. But Boehner balked, preferring to add Republican amendments to the debt limit bill, not the CR. Cantor came up with a different approach that would have allowed the Senate to reject defunding without shutting down the government. A whip count found it lacked enough votes.

So Boehner adopted defunding. It was a smart, bold, and necessary move. But it was the result of what he set in motion at the Williamsburg retreat and what House Republicans heard at town hall meetings during the August congressional recess.

There were “major, major issues such as the IRS, Benghazi, Syria, the NSA,” that Tom Graves thought would be raised, but “our town halls were mainly about Obamacare.” Graves, who narrowly lost to Scalise in the election of an RSC chairman, concluded his highest priority is do all he can “to protect our citizens from Obamacare.”

Jordan, elected against a Democratic tide in 2006, believes the struggle over Obamacare was inevitable. “We won in 2010 on the issue of Obamacare,” he told me. Then the issue was sidelined, first by the Supreme Court case in 2011 and then by the Romney campaign in 2012. “There’s no one else to do the job except the people who were sent to do it, House
Republicans,” says Jordan. “This had to happen.”

What have we learned about Boehner and Republicans from all this? Five things.

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