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Purged Conservatives Are Taking Aim at Leadership

The purge of four rebellious Republicans from plum committee assignments Monday is provoking anger in some quarters of the House Republican Conference, with the dissidents threatening to more aggressively push against leadership’s agenda.

It is unclear whether conservative anger will be offset by the fear the moves inspired in would-be collaborators.

Still, two lawmakers booted from their coveted slots are threatening retaliatory strikes against Speaker John A. Boehner and his leadership team.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas said in an interview that “a lot of folks are talking” about bringing down a rule vote on the House floor.

And Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, the lone moderate among the purge victims, suggested he might sign a discharge petition sponsored by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to force a floor vote on a fiscal cliff bill passed by the Democratic Senate.

“I, at this point, am not going to sign the discharge petition, but I said ‘at this point.’ I don’t know what next week will bring,” Jones told reporters.

Voting down a rule would require only 17 defectors to be successful, because the procedural vote is normally decided on party lines. It would signify a major escalation in the tension between Boehner and his right flank.

Many members — including Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona, who was kicked off the Financial Services Committee — said that was unlikely. “I’m hoping we don’t get there,” Schweikert said.

Even Huelskamp conceded the purge might have had its intended effect of scaring members into line. “Will they risk their committee chairmanships or committee slots to speak up? We’ll see,” he said.

Another key question — one Republicans are still ruminating — is whether the punishment was intended to truly be isolated to the four lawmakers in question, whom some criticize as particularly uncooperative, or a broader message to the right.

At a Monday meeting of the Republican Steering Committee, Schweikert and Jones were booted from the Financial Services Committee, while Justin Amash of Michigan and Huelskamp were removed from the Budget Committee.

Republicans said the decisions sent a tough message to the rank and file and were the latest move by Boehner to clamp down on his fractious conference.

“You want good things in Congress and to have a good career? Better play along nicely,” a GOP aide said Monday, characterizing the message behind the moves.

While a GOP leadership aide said such decisions are made “most often at the request of committee chairs,” Republican aides and members said Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California was the driving force behind the purge.

McCarthy has been laboring as whip for the past two years without many of the tools afforded his predecessors.

“There’s no earmarks, the speaker doesn’t punish people. It’s a different philosophy. So it’s harder where you have to grab something ahead of time and work it through the process,” McCarthy told CQ Roll Call in March.

“This is a move that the whip team has been advocating for some time. They are using all of the tools at their disposal,” a GOP strategist said of the purge.

A spreadsheet of how members had voted on key bills that the Steering Committee reviewed in its deliberations was prepared by McCarthy’s office at the Steering Committee’s request.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the incoming chairman of the Financial Services panel, actually fought to keep Schweikert on his committee, several Republican sources said.

There were other signs that the relevant chairmen did not play a crucial role. Huelskamp, who was also removed from the Agriculture Committee, said he had been in discussions with that panel’s chairman, Frank D. Lucas, about subcommittee assignments.

While the Steering Committee’s decisions took the four lawmakers from coveted committees, being pegged a rebel can offer its own perks.

“My guess is my constituents are going to be mad as a hornet about it. And they’re not gonna punish me. They’re gonna say, ‘We’ve had enough of Washington,’” Huelskamp said. “It’s not like the House of 20 years ago where the speaker can tell you, ‘Sit down and shut up’ and you only had three outlets to counter that. There’s all kinds of things out there.”

Schweikert said he heard “rumblings on Friday” and has leveraged the decision into publicity, appearing on Mike Huckabee’s radio show Tuesday to discuss the fiscal cliff. And Amash and Huelskamp appeared jointly at a Heritage Foundation event, where they decried the leadership decision.

“You still just work your heart out. You don’t all the sudden become a squish,” Schweikert said about his plans. “I’m bemused. Come on, this isn’t how you bring together a conference that’s going into the 113th Congress with fewer members in its majority.”

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