Top aides to House Republican leaders are quietly holding closed-door meetings with influential conservative pressure groups in an effort to coalesce the party’s oft-opposed elements ahead of the coming fiscal fights.
The invitation list for the meetings has included a who’s who of the tea-party-infused groups—FreedomWorks, Club for Growth, and Heritage Action, among them—that have proved a thorn in leadership’s side. On tough votes, those groups have repeatedly rallied the most conservative wing of the conference against the speaker and mobilized activists to tug the political debate further rightward.
But with Speaker John Boehner promising to embrace an ambitious 2013 blueprint that will balance the budget in 10 years, the Ohio Republican knows he can ill afford to take fire from both ends of the political spectrum.
“The fact of the meeting very much suggests they want to unite their coalition,” said Dean Clancy, the vice president for public policy of FreedomWorks, who attended one of the sessions.
Democrats made the most recent spending plan drafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a flash point of the 2012 campaign—and that document took nearly three decades to come into balance. An austere 10-year balanced-budget proposal will assuredly contain more severe and politically unpalatable cutbacks.
“The main point of this is to make sure we’re all on the same page,” said a House Republican leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the talks. “It’s to get everyone on board and in unison in support of the budget.”
The gatherings, at least two of which have been held in the Capitol office of Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in the last week, have been structured much like the budget briefings given to GOP lawmakers, with staff for McCarthy and Ryan presenting the outlines of the House GOP’s preliminary plans. Advisers to other GOP leaders have also attended.
“This kind of stuff is incredibly helpful,” said meeting attendee Mattie Duppler, director of budget and regulatory policy for Americans for Tax Reform.
Duppler said the meetings give conservative groups a chance to privately air their agenda—or grievances—in advance of a budget rollout rather than in public afterward. “You can’t have a document that pleases everyone, but at least if you’re talking to folks who [are] stakeholders in the matter, you have a lot higher probability of having a lot more people happier with it,” she said.
In the past two years, the GOP leadership simply presented a finished or near-complete budget at these sessions, Clancy said, adding that, “This year, they’re getting ahead of the curve by asking for input before they make their decisions. So that’s the change.”
“It felt a little different,” he said.
For the GOP-controlled House to maintain any leverage in the coming fiscal talks with Senate Democrats and the White House, it must stay unified. That has proved a challenge in past budget battles, especially when outside groups mobilize against the leadership. Fractures within the House Republican Conference—most notably during Boehner’s disastrous pursuit of a GOP “Plan B” in the midst of the fiscal-cliff debate in December, when his own members abandoned him in droves—have weakened the speaker’s hand in past talks.
The recent closed-door meetings are an effort to avoid a repeat. “So far it’s been pretty good,” the leadership aide said of the gatherings.
For now, Boehner’s task includes uniting his conference around a yet-to-be-released 10-year balanced-budget plan. It won’t necessarily be easy: A fiscal package crafted by the conservative Republican Study Committee that balanced it in less than 10 years failed by a wide margin last March, 285-136.
In the coming months, lawmakers and the president face a trio of fiscal hurdles, beginning with $85 billion in automatic spending cuts this fiscal year that will go into effect on March 1, known as the sequester. Then, a measure to keep the government funded and operating will be needed in late March. After that, lawmakers must raise the nation’s debt cap—or risk a federal default.
Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, said his organization was “encouraged by these early and frequent discussions,” adding that “the only way we can overcome President Obama’s divisive rhetoric and nonstop campaigning is to unite around and fight for conservative principles.”
Not that any promises of unity were guaranteed. “We want to see it united, as well,” Clancy said of the conservative coalition, “provided it’s behind a great product.”