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Growing Concern at RSC

Conflict is inevitable, perhaps, in a House caucus that numbers 176 members, almost three-quarters of the 240-person GOP majority.

But last week’s public meltdown in relations between Republican Study Committee leadership and some of its rank and file has prompted soul-searching among both members stung by the group’s attacks and partisans who are concerned its sheer size is weakening its effect.

Aides and outside activists said this week that the ugly showdown between rank-and-file members and RSC Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) over RSC Executive Director Paul Teller’s creation of an internal whip list on the debt vote has caused something of a fight over the organization’s soul.

Formed in 1973, the RSC has long seen itself as the conscience of the GOP and has consistently worked to push the Republican Conference to the right. But when Teller’s whip list was discovered — along with emails in which he urged outside organizations to help defeat Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) debt proposal — members targeted by the group were incensed.

During a closed-door GOP meeting, Jordan was forced to apologize for the episode, but not before members took their pound of flesh, particularly from Teller, who many Republicans privately believe is the primary cause of the RSC’s aggressive activities.

Members unhappy with the RSC’s willingness to throw its sharp elbows at fellow Republicans are calling for new controls on the organization.

In turn, outside activists and the core group of conservatives at its heart have their own concerns and are questioning whether it is time to return the organization to its roots as a small band of rabble-rousers that act as the GOP’s “right wall” on policy fights.

“We’ve been reaching out to folks trying to address their concerns … [and] started reviewing internal process and bylaws because there’s various issues that folks have,” an RSC aide said Wednesday.

Many Republicans came into the 112th Congress assuming the RSC would be less of a problem for leadership. Jordan is not only from Ohio, but he represents a district that borders Boehner’s. He and the Speaker also spent significant time together campaigning for conservatives in the Buckeye State during the 2010 election cycle.

Additionally, while Jordan is not considered part of Boehner’s inner circle, they have had a solid relationship in the past.

All of these factors led lawmakers and strategists to assume that, for once, the RSC wouldn’t become a thorn in the side of leadership.

Instead, under Jordan, the RSC has been a consistent problem for leadership. Earlier this year, Jordan was able to tank a trade agreement in the eleventh hour despite strong support for the measure within leadership and the rank and file. In fact, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had already scheduled a floor vote on the bill — under suspension — because he and Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) assumed the bill would have a strong bipartisan showing.

But on the day of the vote, RSC staff compiled a laundry list of complaints against the bill, targeting in particular spending on a worker retraining program, and fired off a bulletin urging members to oppose the bill.

The pressure worked. Freshmen and other conservatives threatened to vote the bill down, and Cantor was forced to pull it from the floor.

That backdrop, and growing complaints within leadership that Jordan was using the RSC as a way to build his own power within the Conference, set the stage for last week’s fight and the demand for change.

But what direction those changes will take remains unclear.

The concerns of some rank-and-file RSC members were summed up in a draft “Dear Colleague” letter written by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.). Rooney, who circulated the letter among colleagues last week, argued that “the recent actions taken by RSC staff under your leadership, with or without your approval, represent a dangerous expansion of RSC activities that threaten not only the future of the RSC itself, but that of our hard-fought majority.”

“Sadly, these activities serve only to showcase the intolerant, short-sighted perspective we believe has become pervasive within the RSC and its staff,” Rooney added.

The letter also called on Jordan to halt any RSC whip efforts, to help protect RSC members “voting their conscience against attacks by RSC-affiliated groups” and to require a majority endorsement of RSC budgets, vote recommendations and other papers before official release.

Although Rooney hasn’t sent the letter, “Congressman Rooney has spoken with Congressman Jordan about some of his concerns,” Rooney spokesman Mike Mahaffey said Wednesday.

But even if Rooney had sent the letter, those changes aren’t likely to occur anytime soon.

Although Jordan was forced to apologize for Teller’s whipping, hard-right conservatives in the House did not believe he was engaged in anything outside the RSC’s normal activities. A GOP aide said the organization was simply trying to live up to its stated goal of being the conscience of the GOP, and “that’s what it’s going to continue to do.”

Jordan and Teller also have support from conservatives. Activists set up a Web page selling “Save Paul Teller” T-shirts. Russ Vought, political director for Heritage Action for America and a former RSC staffer who is an influential voice in tea party and conservative circles, also came to the defense of the RSC and Teller.

In a blog post on titled “Message to RSC Members: Get In or Get Out,” Vought defended Jordan, writing, “Jim Jordan is proving to be one of the most effective [chairmen] in the history of the RSC. … Instead of being raked over the coals, he should be honored as a patriot.”

Vought also took aim at RSC members who are unhappy that they were targeted. “A lot of — let’s be generous here — casually conservative Members of Congress like to join the RSC in order to be perceived back home as a 100% winger,” Vought wrote.

“But in reality, these Members are in the ‘Just Happy to Be Here’ Caucus,” he added.

Vought concluded his blog with, “Message to RSC Members who don’t like how the RSC is being managed: Get out.”

And that might end up being what happens, aides and others familiar with the organization said.

A number of RSC members targeted by Teller are reportedly considering dropping their membership next year — if for no other reason than to avoid having their dues used to orchestrate attacks on them.

Although Jordan won’t force members out, according to aides, shrinking the size of the organization would have benefits.

Other influential House caucuses limit their membership in a bid to maintain their credibility and focus. The Blue Dog Coalition of moderate Democrats doesn’t allow its membership to exceed 25 percent of the Democratic Caucus.

A conservative activist who works with Teller argued that such a reduction in numbers might be appropriate. “Do we want to be 175 strong? 80 strong? 50? If you’re 50 members strong, you still have enough to take down a rule” and wreak havoc on the floor, the activist argued.

Part of that reduction might come naturally if Jordan continues to make life difficult for wayward RSC members.

“Just continue going forward and pushing forward, and the members will fall off on their own. If I was Jim Jordan, I wouldn’t start purging members,” the activist said.

The activist also said that while the battle with GOP leaders has been difficult, “I do think the whole thing is shaking out the right way. I think the RSC is looking at its whole identity.”

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