Rebellion in GOP ranks: How Boehner lost control of the House this week

Republican freshman – tea partyers and others – keep breaking ranks, leading to shocking legislative defeats. Now, 87 representatives and 11 senators have written to Speaker of the House John Boehner to insist on $100 billion in budget cuts.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio, gives a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 10. A week of setbacks and legislative defeats has shaken the GOP leadership.

It’s been a long week for the new House Republican majority, stunned by losing two floor votes, having to postpone a trade vote, then scrambling to find a working majority in their own ranks on their No. 1 issue – reducing the size of government.

Republican leaders Wednesday floated a preliminary list of $32 billion in spending cuts for fiscal year 2011, now funded only through March 4. It’s draconian by historic standards for cuts in a single fiscal year. But party conservatives at a closed meeting on Wednesday dug in for cuts closer to the $100 billion pledged in the 2010 campaign, forcing GOP leaders back to the drawing board.

“We’re working with our members and committee chairmen to achieve the largest cut that is possible,” said Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio at a briefing with press on Thursday. He says he expects to take the measure to the floor next week.

“We’re in a new era. I made it pretty clear we’re going to allow the House to work its will,” he added. “It means that the leaders may not get what they want every day.”

Typically, opposition to spending cuts comes from those defending the programs facing the ax. For GOP leaders, the tough sell is to their own newest members – their majority makers who say the cuts aren’t deep enough.

A tough, intraparty struggle has been expected ever since voters sent 87 GOP freshman to the House after a campaign that turned on debt and spending. Eighty-nine members of the Republican Study Committee, the conservative wing of the GOP caucus, signed a letter to Speaker Boehner calling for $100 billion less than House Democrats proposed spending.

This week’s floor defeats – on measures expected to pass easily – further rattled GOP leaders, sparking speculation that the majority couldn't govern, or at least count votes.

  • On Tuesday, 26 Republicans broke party ranks to vote down a measure to extend expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, an antiterrorism bill rushed through Congress after the 9/11 attacks. The bill comes back to the floor on Friday.
  • Next, GOP leaders pulled a trade bill, also headed toward defeat.
  • On Wednesday, Republicans lost a vote on what was expected to be a popular measure to require the United Nations to refund $179 million in overpayments. All but 23 Democrats plus two Republicans opposed the move after the Obama administration made a case that the bill would defund new security measures at the UN.

Democrats said the past week shows that Republicans aren’t ready to govern. “The majority is giving us paralysis – all talk and no jobs,” said Rep. Robert Andrews (D) of New Jersey, on the House floor on Thursday. Moreover, the Patriot Act extensions and other recent measures came to the floor without hearings, he added.

“I thought all along that the Republicans would have a hard time finding a working majority,” says pollster G. Terry Madonna, who directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn.

“Many of the newest members don’t come out of the regular party structure. They were elected in the most lethal environment for spending we’ve seen since 1994. And they don’t have vested interests in pork projects or relations with lobbyists in their districts who have been importuning them, in some cases for decades, for projects,” he adds.

The House Appropriations panel on Wednesday released a list of some 70 projects to be cut back or eliminated. These include zeroing out funding for AmeriCorps ($373 million), high-speed rail ($1 billion), police hiring grants ($298 million), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($531 million).

Programs that their proposal would cut but not eliminate include: the Environmental Protection Agency (cut by $2 billion), Community Development Fund ($530 million), renewable energy grants ($899 million), nuclear energy ($169 million), and the Federal Bureau of Administration ($89 million).

“Never before has Congress undertaken a task of this magnitude. The cuts in this [spending proposal] will represent the largest reduction in discretionary spending in the history of our nation,” said Rep. Harold Rogers (R) of Kentucky, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, in a statement.

But for many Republicans – in both houses – it’s not nearly enough.

Last week, 11 Senate Republicans, including five freshman, wrote a letter to Boehner urging the new Republican majority to hold out for $100 billion in cuts for FY 2011.

“With a $1.5 trillion deficit and 9 percent unemployment, we’ve got to make tough choices to put our economy back on the right path to create jobs,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, in a statement today.

Other Senate GOP conservatives endorsing the $100 billion level include: freshmen Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida, along with Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, John Ensign of Nevada, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, and David Vitter of Louisiana.

Senate Democrats say that big spending cuts in the current fiscal year could derail the economic recovery.

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