By the numbers, it would seem that Election 2012 didn't change much, with the White House and Congress remaining in the same hands. But Monday’s Capitol Hill goings-on hinted at just how much Washington’s terrain is shifting
The conservative wing of the GOP, which propelled the party to historic success in 2010, is being marginalized – leading to open calls for rebellion in some quarters.
First, there’s a Republican moderation on taxes – accepting new revenues that are anathema to the tea party credo that gave Republicans control of the House two years ago. But more quietly, House leaders stripped plum committee assignments from three deeply conservative freshman lawmakers – assignments doled out with much fanfare in 2010 to show that party leadership would listen to its vocal and conservative bloc of freshman members.
Together, the two moves are evidence of the stresses within a Republican Party trying to reorient itself after an electoral drubbing in November
On Monday, House Republican leaders signed on to a plan that would raise $800 billion in taxes over a decade as part of a $2.2 trillion proposal to avert the impending "fiscal cliff." The plan did not raise tax rates but vowed to close tax loopholes, providing money that the federal government could use to pay down the deficit.
In the summer of 2011, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio reportedly offered a similar amount of revenue in debt-reduction negotiations with President Obama. But House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin called such use of tax revenues everything short of political apostasy. This year, however, they put their signatures on the offer to the president on Monday.
Representative Cantor noted the change the election wrought even before the House GOP made its offer.
“The speaker put new revenues on the table just after the election and said: 'We get it. The president won his reelection; we won our reelection. We have to now come together,' ” he told reporters on Friday. Offering more tax revenue “is our proposal to the president that we were unwilling to give a year and a half ago during the debt-ceiling talks."
The groups that powered the conservative surge in 2010 treated the plan with icy disdain.
“The president's proposal and Speaker Boehner's counteroffer fail to seriously deal with the reality of the problems facing the nation,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, an arch-conservative advocacy group backed by a pair of conservative billionaires. “Conservatives are looking for a leader to fight against tax increases, to push back against wasteful government spending, and address the fiscal challenges in a bold way. Sadly, this plan leaves conservatives wanting."
An e-mail sent to supporters of Heritage Action, the political advocacy arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, added: “Republicans retained control of the U.S. House of Representatives to serve as a check to President Obama's big-government agenda, not to find creative ways to fund it.”
Beneath the news of the Republican party’s fiscal cliff rejoinder, there’s also a bitter twist in the frequently contentious relationship between some of the GOP’s most conservative freshman lawmakers and the party’s House leadership.
Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan and Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas were dropped from the House Budget Committee. Representative Huelskamp was also punted from the House Agriculture Committee. In addition, freshman Rep. Dave Schweikert (R) of Arizona, who won a brutal member-versus-member primary against establishment favorite Rep. Ben Quayle (R) in a race affected by redistricting, was dropped from the Financial Services Committee.
Representative Amash’s office declined to comment because the congressman has yet to receive his future committee assignments. But Representatives Schweikert and Huelskamp pegged their departure from the committees as political payback for not following the GOP leadership on issues like the debt-ceiling increase of 2011.
"This morning Congressman Schweikert learned there was a price to be paid for voting based on principle,” said Rachel Semmel, a Schweikert spokesperson, in an e-mail. “That price was the removal from the House Financial Services Committee.”
Huelskamp was even more direct.
“It is little wonder why Congress has a 16 percent approval rating: Americans send principled representatives to change Washington and get punished in return,” he said. “The GOP leadership might think they have silenced conservatives, but removing me and others from key committees only confirms our conservative convictions. This is clearly a vindictive move, and a sure sign that the GOP establishment cannot handle disagreement.”
Of more than 70 freshmen from the class of 2010, only three lost a committee assignment. Still, several conservative political groups rallied to the lawmakers side.
“Is there room in the House Republican Conference for legislators who believe that Washington is spending too much money it does not have? Based on this remarkably hostile act by leadership, the answer may be no,” said Matt Kibbe, the director of tea party group FreedomWorks. “This is establishment thinking, circling the wagons around yes-men and punishing anyone that dares to take a stand for good public policy.”
“Congressmen Schweikert, Huelskamp, and Amash are now free of the last remnants of establishment leverage against them,” he said. “We expect that these three defenders of economic freedom will become even bolder in their efforts to defend the taxpayers against the big spenders in both parties.”