As primary season begins in earnest, GOP offers up red meat in House

As primary season begins in earnest, GOP offers up red meat in House
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) at news conference on Capitol Hill in April. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Just in time for the first major run of primary elections, House Republicans looking to keep tea party upstarts at bay are offering up an extra helping of red meat.

Voters are casting ballots today in primaries in Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio; eight more states will follow later this month. In an era in which GOP lawmakers are more wary of a challenge from their right than from a Democrat, House leaders have scheduled what looks like an incumbent-protection-program series of votes this week such issues as Benghazi and the Internal Revenue Service.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who is favored to win his own primary election this week but has nonetheless taken the unusual step of running TV ads to boost his numbers, announced Monday that he intends to have South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy lead a new select committee to investigate the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya. The committee could be formed by a vote of the full House later this week.

The House will also vote on a pair of measures inspired by the Internal Revenue Service's admission that some tea party groups and other political organizations applying for tax-exempt status were inappropriately targeted for extra scrutiny, a subject that like the Benghazi raid has riled the conservative base.

One resolution calls on Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to appoint a special counsel to take over the Justice Department's investigation of the IRS activities, charging that the department itself has a conflict of interest. Another resolution seeks to hold Lois Lerner, who led the IRS department that reviewed the tax-exempt applications, in contempt of Congress.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who like Boehner has drawn a tea-party challenger in his bid for renomination, has also scheduled a vote on a personal priority of his - expanding charter schools. The Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act, though, has bipartisan support.

The tea-party movement, a major force in the 2010 elections that put Republicans back in control of the House, has seen its electoral influence wane as the party establishment has made a concerted effort to outmaneuver it. Elections this month may offer the best test yet of whether that strategy has been successful.

The House votes this week serve as a reminder, though, of how important it is for the GOP to keep activists motivated in the midterm year. The votes will also supply members who face criticism over past votes to hike spending or raise debt limits something to tout in the closing weeks of their campaigns.

Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, blasted Republicans' decision to waste time on "partisan messaging bills." He noted that Boehner had as recently as last month ruled out calling for a select committee on Benghazi, but said that the political pressure from the GOP base has "prevailed upon the speaker to change his mind."

"Once again the Republicans are using the time of the House of Representatives solely to pursue political messaging, the politics of the issues, and not the substance of what Americans want us to do in poll after poll after poll after poll," he told reporters.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a veteran member who has at times been critical of the tea party, said he supported creating the Benghazi select committee, but warned his party of overreaching.

"I think the worst thing Republicans could be seen as is somehow encouraging a political fight over the fact that four Americans were murdered," he said Monday on MSNBC. "We have an obligation to make it work, to make it work in an effective and efficient way, not drag it out."

The House's agenda this week stands in contrast to the Senate's, where the Democratic leadership is prepared to allow a vote on a measure intended to allow vulnerable Democrats to demonstrate political independence from the White House. A vote on a stand-alone bill that would call for approving the Keystone XL pipeline is expected later this week, and has support of a who's-who of Democrats facing reelection this year in Republican-leaning states, including Louisiana's Mary Landrieu.