Tensions and backbiting in the House Republican leadership contributed to the messiness of the 2011 standoff over the debt limit. But in this year’s talks to avert a fiscal cliff of higher taxes and automatic spending cuts, top House Republicans appear to be remarkably unified.
As he negotiates with President Obama, Speaker John Boehner has been able to count on loyalty from Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, as well as from Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the GOP's 2012 vice presidential nominee. But will that last?
“Who knows? It’s a bit like Kremlinology, trying to keep track of what really is going on with these Republican leaders,” responds Ross Baker, a Rutgers University professor whose specialty is Congress. “For now, they are presenting a picture to the media of solidarity. But Cantor’s ambition for the speakership has not abated. And does anyone doubt he would be first in line to oppose Boehner if he runs into trouble, upsetting too many Republicans in a deal?”
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, adds of the current House GOP leaders’ solidarity: “Whether they can keep that up through December, make it work when a [fiscal-cliff] deal is in the offing, or keep their internal tensions from spilling over afterward, are major questions.” For now, Ornstein said, Republican solidarity may reflect the fact that they are “shell-shocked from the election—one they expected to win handily.”
There is no denying that Boehner and Cantor have an uneasy history, dating from early 2011 when the two took the helm of a new GOP majority. The friction between the two has been such an open secret that Democrats make fun of their relationship. President Obama in February kidded the speaker at the annual Alfalfa Club dinner, “Mr. Boehner, it's good to see you sitting at the main table. I know how badly Mr. Cantor wanted that seat!”
Another Democrat, former Rep. Dennis Cardoza of California, views the rivalry as a counterproductive force in a dysfunctional Congress. He offered in a column in February that Boehner has no choice but to constantly watch his back because of Cantor, and that “Cantor feeds and exploits the most radical factions in the Republican Caucus, and his jealousy often mires his caucus in ideological impotence.”
The relationship hit a low point during the debt-ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011. Boehner held a series of meetings with Obama that were secret even to Cantor and then came to believe that Cantor was working against the deal they were trying to reach. The behind-the-scenes squabbling and competition by early this year had become so palpable that even rank-and-file House Republicans questioned during a closed-door meeting whether the leaders might be working too much at odds with each other.
Venting House Republicans worried that the dysfunction was thwarting progress on legislative goals and contributing to sinking public-approval ratings for the GOP. Boehner has played down the tensions as having more to do with warring staffers than a lack of rapport between the leaders themselves. But apparently having had enough, both the Boehner and Cantor camps made it known in February that they had reached a truce, and were working to heal internal divisions.
Since then, they have brushed aside any suggestions of division. That was on display even last week, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., (perhaps out of mischief) said he’d heard about new infighting between Boehner, Cantor, McCarthy, and Ryan regarding fiscal-cliff negotiations. House Republican colleagues shot down the speculation.
“They seem to me to be working very well together,” says Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
Cole was even quick to note that earlier this month Cantor, McCarthy, and Ryan all signed Boehner’s opening offer to the White House in the cliff talks.
The offer of $800 billion in new revenue has angered conservative activists. Many of them fear Boehner might eventually agree to freeze tax rates for the middle class, while allowing rates for the wealthy to rise.
But the fingerprints of Cantor, McCarthy, and Ryan also were also on that offer, by virtue of their signatures.
“I think that was a sign to the president’s team that we’re very united -- our negotiator’s the speaker. Don’t come around and try to cut some side deal. Sit down and work with him,” said Cole, even though he is among a handful of Republicans who don’t oppose letting tax rates rise on the rich, for now, if rates on everyone else can be extended.
Since then, Boehner has drawn added conservative fire after news that his House GOP steering committee had purged four conservatives from their coveted seats on key committees, at least three of whom have clashed with party leaders over government spending and the federal deficit.
But several senior GOP aides note that both Cantor and McCarthy also sit on that steering committee. And neither man -- both have in the past sought to position themselves as more in touch than Boehner with the radical and more-demanding conservative factions in the Republican Conference -- has publicly voiced any disagreement with the removals.
Still, those committee purges, and the fear that Boehner might cave on taxes, is leading some conservative groups to call for Boehner’s ouster when rank-and-file lawmakers vote in speaker elections on Jan. 3. Such an outcome is unlikely but possible if internal GOP dissension festers. That’s because it would require just 17 Republicans -- if all the House members showed up to vote -- to publicly vote for someone else, and thus block Boehner from getting the required 50 percent-plus-one votes required.
Boehner on Thursday told reporters that he is not concerned about keeping the speaker’s gavel as he continues his negotiations with the White House. “What I’m concerned about is doing the right thing for our kids and grandkids,” he said.
But what’s notable is that both Cantor and McCarthy seem to have lost favor with conservatives who are openly floating wish lists of potential new speakers.
“Now, they’re all basically just viewed as the same [as Boehner] -- one team. Not somebody we’d turn to if we wanted change,” said one House Republican, who asked not to be identified. In short, Cantor and McCarthy may be sticking with Boehner because their fates are linked to his.
Rutgers’s Baker said the lockstep approach of Republicans could ultimately give Boehner less leeway to compromise in the talks.
The flip side, Ornstein said, may be that Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy still find themselves “a bit back on their heels” from Democrats winning the popular vote for the House, holding onto the presidency, and picking up two seats in a Senate election that most observers expected to be a bad one for the Democrats.
“They also see the polls showing voters ready to blame Republicans. So leaders [such as] Cantor, Ryan, and McCarthy, who are very smart, and most rank-and-filers, know that it serves their common interests to appear circumspect, united, and aiming at problem-solving,” Ornstein said. He added that “with Obama's approval up to 53 or 54 percent, disunity, division, and a seeming determination to send the country down the tubes for ideological or political gain would be disastrous.”