House Republicans tried a fresh strategy Wednesday night: Go it alone on a spending bill.
The result was an embarrassing setback.
Wednesday night’s rank-and-file rebuke of GOP leadership — with 48 Republicans bolting on a temporary spending bill — underscored the fact that the House Republican majority is still struggling to find unity on major spending bills. It also showed they still need Democratic votes to help them govern.
The pressure from an angry Speaker John Boehner didn’t work — he even threatened to strip committee assignments. Four dozen Republicans —mostly conservatives — wanted more cuts, and they just said no, creating an uncomfortable scene on the House floor as the funding bill failed on a 195-230 vote. Democrats showed a rare moment of unity in overwhelmingly opposing the continuing resolution, which would keep the government funded through Nov. 18.
Now, to prevent a government shutdown, Republicans will have to rewrite the bill and figure out how to get the votes.
GOP lawmakers and aides – including Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) – blamed Democrats for defeating the bill. Democrats, including Appropriations Ranking Democrat Norm Dicks, said they’d support the bill, but reversed course because of pressure from Democrats opposed to an offset that cut a subsidy for automobile manufacturers.
Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who sent a letter with more than 100 signers pressuring Speaker Boehner to drop that provision, said Boehner will have to cooperate with Democrats to push a stopgap measure across the finish line.
“He can’t pass this bill with his own members,” Peters said of Boehner. “He has basically 30-40 members in his caucus that are so extreme that they wouldn’t vote for this bill.”
Republican leadership knew they were heading for trouble when the day began. Tuesday night, they realized they didn’t have the votes, but opted to take it to the floor and try to get the votes Wednesday — and they came up short.
That underscores Boehner’s ongoing problem — he can’t rely on Republicans to stand with him if Democrats decide to unify against him.
Republican leadership aides say their hefty “no” caucus — folks who oppose their leadership no matter what — limited their options on the bill. Lawmakers and aides say Boehner may end of making an example of somebody in the GOP conference — though it’s not clear what the punishment will be — for defying him.
Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, repeatedly said that Boehner and other Republican leaders “would continue to work on a responsible bill that can pass the House” following a leadership meeting in Boehner’s office just after the vote. Steel declined to say what that bill would look like or when it would come up for a vote.
The Rules Committee met Wednesday night to give GOP leadership authority to post a revised CR and vote on it in the same day.
Cantor, speaking to reporters as he walked off the floor, said the defeat is a function of changing the culture in D.C.
“We are focused on trying to change the way business is done in Washington,” he said. “Change like this is hard. We’ll find a way forward so that we can reflect the expectations the taxpayers have that we’re going to begin to start spending their money more prudently.”
Cantor said that Democrats are “playing politics” on the issue.
“In the end, we’ll do what’s right by the people who put us here. It’s just part of the process, unfortunately,” Cantor told reporters after leaving the House floor.
The process Wednesday wasn’t pretty.
Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy struggled all day to win over recalcitrant GOP lawmakers. Boehner, who doesn’t traditionally vote, came to the floor for both series of votes earlier in the afternoon to personally grab members for one-on-one lobbying.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who has long pushed for offsetting disaster relief, stood up in a Republican conference meeting and told members that this bill was progress. Some conservatives joined Boehner — Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Pence, Rep. Allen West of Florida and Scott Garrett of New Jersey.
When asked about the mood among his fellow Republicans, Rogers, the Appropriations Committee chairman, shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I don’t know,” Rogers said.
“There are honest disagreements on the level of spending,” the Kentucky Republican noted. “That’s basically what happened.”
Rogers insisted that Boehner is not in any greater trouble with his fellow Republicans and remains popular and powerful. When asked if Republicans should be punished for voting against leadership, Rogers demurred.
“I’ll leave that to the speaker,” he said.
It’s been a tumultuous few months for Republican leaders. Boehner had to back down on his attempt to cut a $4 trillion “grand bargain” with President Barack Obama over the debt-ceiling increase, and later had to back down on a balanced-budget amendment vote in the face of fierce opposition from within his own conference. In the end, Boehner and Obama stood on the sidelines as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) put together the framework for the deal that avoided a debt default.
“DeLay would never have lost this vote,” noted one veteran GOP lawmaker after Wednesday’s upheaval. The Republican member was speaking of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), known as “The Hammer” by Republicans and Democrats alike. “DeLay would never have brought this thing to the floor until he knew that he had the votes.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.