House Republicans have taken a sharp turn to the right this year, with the long-disaffected conservative Republican Study Committee finding its clout growing within the party even as the GOP’s fortunes have tumbled.
With the GOP picking fights on appropriations, children’s health care, immigration and national security, the House’s conservative wing has taken on a more dominant role in the party.
Conservatives are heartened by the renewed commitment to fiscal austerity shown by Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and have been buoyed by the successful fight to sustain the president’s veto of children’s health insurance, and they look eagerly to a series of party-defining fights over coming spending and tax bills.
“I’ve been happy that on every vote we’ve taken, we’ve been able to sustain the president’s veto,” RSC Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) said.
“I think we’re in a win-win situation,” said Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), a former chairman of the RSC. “If we win these battles, we win with the American people. If we fight these battles and lose, we still win with that part of the public who thinks we spend too much money.”
Pence said conservatives felt that “not only did we lose fiscal discipline, we didn’t even fight for it very hard. They are heartened to see Republicans in the fight.”
Pence noted that the last time a major new health care program came to the floor in 2003, Republicans were expanding entitlement programs. Now they are standing in the way of one.
But at the same time, conservatives see the rightward shift, particularly on fiscal issues, as somewhat tenuous and incomplete, with many Republicans breaking ranks on spending bills and continuing to dip their trunks into the earmark trough.
“There are still too many in our caucus who think that earmarks are the poster children of fiscal responsibility, and I’m disappointed that so many are willing to vote for the first steps toward Hillary-style health care,” Hensarling said, tarring the State Children’s Health Insurance Program bill with GOP bogeywoman Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). “I don’t understand that.”
And conservatives acknowledge that there is a risk that they could get rolled in the coming months if Republicans do not hold tough.
“It’s sort of gut-check time for Republicans and fiscal conservatives, whether we stand tough or whether we just roll over for the left,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), ranking member on the Budget Committee.
Ryan called the RSC “the lone voice in the woods the last number of years on pork, overspending, size of government, and most of us believe that is the primary reason why we lost the majority. I think people have come to realize that we lost our way and we lost our roots and we’ve got to get back to them.”
Ryan, who is urging Republicans to take bolder stands and offer bold solutions to deal with health care and other problems, said skirmishes like the appropriations fight are not enough.
“We have to come up with solutions that rise to the challenges of the day, and that takes time, instead of just fighting the fight on their terms.”
And while some moderates have urged the party to pick and choose its fights and avoid opposing popular programs like SCHIP, Ryan said Republicans can’t simply concede those issues “because it’s good politics this month. SCHIP is a piece of the biggest battle of our time, the future of health care.”
Part of the rightward shift can be explained by the freedom of being in the minority. Without a need to muster 218 votes, party leaders are free to pursue a more ideologically pure course. But Republicans also see more energy among the conservative Members and a need to shore up the party’s conservative base.
“Republicans lost the majority last year because we did not stand on the power of our convictions,” said Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “That was a tough lesson for us to learn, but it’s a lesson that we are taking very seriously. … Returning to those very ideas that brought Republicans to the majority in the first place is how we get our street cred back with our base and with Republicans. They are the key to our taking back the majority. And to get there, we want and need the advice and support of the RSC, because they are a critical part of that effort.”
House conservatives also have taken on added importance as a backstop this year for President Bush.
When Bush needs a veto sustained, he can’t rely on Republican Senators, who have shown plenty of willingness to vote with Democrats to spend more money, whether on the children’s health insurance bill or last week’s Labor, Health and Human Services and Education spending bill, which passed 75-19 despite a veto threat.
The House GOP, with its more ideological caucus and safer gerrymandered seats, has shown that it can back Bush up.
Whether that ultimately spells a return to Republican glory or a fast-track to electoral oblivion remains to be seen.
Cocksure Democrats see major political gains to be had from the growing rightward tilt. Boehner complained last week that House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) told him Democrats didn’t care whether Republicans voted for children’s health care because they were going to hang it around the Republicans’ necks in the next election.
And Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) has argued that even when moderate Republicans vote with Democrats, they will be tarred with a broader negative view of Republicans because of votes the party has taken against expanding health care and other programs that have broad support in polls.
But Republican aides say votes like SCHIP will fire up their base while giving moderate Members ammunition to show that they can break with their party.
Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a leading moderate, notes prominently on his Web page that he has now voted three times to break with his party and support SCHIP.
Former Rep. Charles Bass (N.H.), now head of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership, dismisses’ conservative talk that excessive spending cost the GOP their majority last year.
“I don’t buy that at all,” said Bass, who lost a re-election bid. “The issue was Iraq, pure and simple, Iraq and scandal.”
Bass said Republicans lost not because of a drop in turnout among conservatives but because independents voted overwhelmingly for Democrats because they wanted a change.
“The idea that we weren’t conservative enough is absolutely ludicrous,” Bass said. Moderates are focused on trying to reach pragmatic compromises with Democrats, Bass said. But Democratic leaders have chosen to jam through bills with little attempt at real negotiations, Bass complained.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders appear happy to keep duking it out until the next election.
“This leadership team committed to themselves and to the taxpayers back in December and January at Republican retreats that restoring our credentials on fiscal issues was going to be a No. 1 priority this year,” Boehner spokesman Brian Kennedy said. “Whether it’s SCHIP or the appropriations battles, the leadership is very confident that these are exactly the kinds of stands that we need to make to earn our way back to a majority.”