On the day after declaring war on the conservative groups that helped propel his party to power in the House, Speaker John Boehner on Thursday was advancing a two-pronged strategy—delivering another brush-back pitch at them while arguing that everyone needs to just move along to more fertile territory for Republicans.
Boehner said during a Thursday news conference that outside groups pressuring members to vote down the new budget deal were “misleading their followers. I think they're pushing our members in places where they don't want to be. And frankly, I just think that they've lost all credibility.”
The speaker blamed the groups for pushing Republicans in Congress into their unpopular decision to shut down the government—“My members know,” he said, “that wasn’t exactly the strategy that I had in mind”—and defended himself as “as conservative as anybody around this place.”
As Boehner objected again to the tactics employed by moneyed groups like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, who have warned members that they are expecting “no” votes on the deal, he also sought from his opening words to shift attention back to the rocky rollout of the president’s healthcare plan. That is an issue that already has dramatically cut into Obama’s popularity ratings, making it a more visceral lure for attracting voters.
“In the lead-up to and following the launch of the president's healthcare law, we've been asking questions that the American people will want answers to,” Boehner said. “You know, why did the president mislead the American people when he promised they could keep their healthcare plan? You know, why is Obamacare forcing Americans to lose access to the doctors they like? Why are healthcare premiums and deductibles spiking for so many Americans? And what everyone has learned is that the law's a disaster. And all this important oversight work will continue into the new year.”
Boehner’s remarks suggested two realities that might seem at variance: the feud between congressional leaders and those powering tea party opponents of establishment Republicans will probably continue. And, barring some stunning deviation from history, the budget deal that spawned the newest fight will probably not matter much by the time election day arrives in 2014. Because rarely do congressional votes, particularly ones as process-oriented as this one, matter much.
President Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war in 2002, and Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize it, did provide a notable distinction between the two Democrats during their 2008 nomination fight. For Obama, it served as a means of defining him to a party that knew him largely from one lauded speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His partisans were able to use the vote to cast Clinton as part of the old-school Washington mainstream at a time the party was in the mood for something fresh.
But by no means did even that vote—with its life-and-death, war-or-peace implications—determine the course of a presidential campaign that centered on the nation’s desire for a U-turn from the Bush administration’s policies and, when the economy later cratered, stewardship of the country’s fiscal future.
When one person takes the brunt of a vote—and the political stars align—it can have power, as Pennsylvania Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky found. The Democratic freshman, representing a conservative district, cast the deciding vote on President Clinton’s budget in 1993 and was booted from office the next year. But 1994 featured a giant Republican wave, when the party took control of Congress for the first time in four decades, and no one is predicting the same sort of gains in 2014.
Even issues that are not terribly consequential overall can carry power in party primaries where certain votes can stick in the craw of avid partisans in a way that they don’t among the broader audience. That is certainly the hope of the tea party challengers aiming at a host of Republican Senate incumbents and already touting their opposition to the budget deal.
State Sen. Chris McDaniel, who is challenging veteran Republican Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi’s Republican senate primary, was among those who forwarded the deal to voters as a defining position.
“Our country is facing a debt crisis, and instead of cutting spending Washington politicians are making deals to eliminate what small spending cuts are already in place and increase spending further,” McDaniel said in a statement released by his campaign that hit on both tea party and outsider sentiments.
“The Ryan-Murray deal is a complete abdication of Washington’s governing responsibility. Unfortunately, Republicans in Washington are just as much to blame as Democrats. After increasing spending for years, many Republican politicians are now acquiescing to Democratic demands to continue business as usual. I urge Sen. Cochran to reject this deal and insist on absolutely no spending increases.”