How Long Can Boehner Contain the Rebellion?

Tim Alberta
National Journal

The silence emanating from the House Republican Conference these days is deafening. After the 112th Congress was marked by ugly internecine warfare, often pitting House leadership against the conservative rank and file, both sides recognized the need for a cease-fire. So at the dawn of the 113th Congress, Speaker John Boehner reached out to five of his smartest and most influential conservative members—Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Tom Price of Georgia, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana—with a simple request: Come up with a plan to unite the conference and hide the ideological cracks that surfaced over the past two years.

Having heard from this Conservative Jedi Council, Boehner met in mid-January with all Republican members at a retreat in Williamsburg, Va. There, after a lengthy back-and-forth over the direction they should take in the months ahead, Boehner extended an olive branch. The speaker promised members that his leadership team was committed to advancing their goals in the 113th Congress. He would uphold the sequester, allowing for reprioritization. He would push a 10-year balanced budget. He would hold the line against further tax hikes. In return, Boehner requested enough votes to temporarily raise the debt ceiling. Perhaps more important, the speaker asked for patience and for unity of purpose, pleading with his untrusting subordinates to give him the chance to keep these promises.

Six weeks later, the honeymoon persists. House Republicans are united in their embrace of significant spending cuts, whether in the form of the sequester or an alternative plan. They are conjoined in their rejection of President Obama’s call for another round of tax hikes to help avoid the automatic cuts looming on March 1. And they are uniform in their endorsement of a new continuing resolution with post-sequester spending levels of $974 billion. It’s still early, and a minefield of deal-breakers awaits this brittle brotherhood. But so far, the reset in relations is winning over some conservative skeptics.

“As cynical as I might be, I’ve been extraordinarily impressed thus far,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., who has occasionally been a thorn in leadership’s side. “Right now the fiscal hawks are winning. I finally feel like we’re talking about spending. We’ve got the debate on our turf right now—and I’ve got to give leadership credit for that.”

But the union is a fragile one. Based on conversations with the conference’s most conservative members, many of them simply do not trust Boehner. And while they’ve been willing to march in formation thus far in the new Congress, they will break ranks if they don’t see a permanent shift in the ideological trajectory of their conference. “Conservatives are giving leadership a chance for a few months to see what direction we take,” said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich. “I think the level of frustration has built up to the point where we hope there are positive outcomes out of the next months. If not, I would not be surprised to see a larger rebellion.”

When Amash speaks of a “larger” rebellion, he’s referencing the mini-mutiny that occurred in January, when he and several other conservative members—including Mulvaney—attempted to organize a coup against the speaker. The effort to oust him ultimately failed, attracting only 12 defectors (17 were needed to force a second ballot). The discontent of those dozen lawmakers doesn’t threaten Boehner; it’s the other 150-or-so conservative members who have stood behind him but are growing impatient with the legislative inertia born by their internal dysfunction. These members are kindling in the political tinderbox, waiting for the first spark—caving on the post-sequester spending levels, for example—that could engulf the conference anew.

One of those members is Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, who said disappointedly of House Republicans: “We’re not united.” Brady, who empathizes with some conservative grievances against leadership, said nonetheless that members should show a united front regardless of what’s happening behind closed doors. Beyond that, Brady emphasized a point many of his younger comrades are loathe to concede: Boehner was not entirely to blame for the failures of the last Congress. “I’m not in the camp that blames leadership for all of our problems,” Brady said. “We have a responsibility as a conference not to simply yell at leadership to call our play, but to get on the field and move the ball.”

Of course, players are more likely to move the ball when their play is called. And right now in the House Republican Conference, for the first time in a long time, the coaches and players are on the same page. “Everyone seems to be pulling in the same direction,” said Mulvaney, crediting leadership for the change. “Not only have they moved the debate to spending, but we’re winning that debate.”

Price, who has been floated by conservatives as a possible replacement for Boehner, cited the Williamsburg session as a turning point. “I think at our retreat, we had a great exchange of ideas and a coalescing around a strategy to address the next three to four months,” he said. “I think the working relationship among all conference members is probably more cohesive now than it has been at any time since we were in the minority.”

Still, after experiencing the circular shooting of the 112th Congress, some conservatives won’t commit. “This is a trial period,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, who voted against Boehner and isn’t convinced the cease-fire will last. Huelskamp, who itemized Boehner’s promises in a document titled “The Williamsburg Accord,” predicted dire consequences if leadership does not deliver. “We expect these things to happen,” said Huelskamp. “The speaker gave his word. He pledged his speakership.”