Cruz-Led Conservatives Put Boehner in Double Bind

Posted October 15, 2013 at 6:43pm

Speaker John A. Boehner appears to be desperately trying to drag his Republican Conference toward a deal to reopen the government and extend the debt ceiling. But will Ted Cruz let him?

The freshman senator from Texas is leading a rump group of House tea party conservatives against Boehner and a good part of the House GOP conference, taking the U.S. government to the brink of default on its debts, now only days away according to Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and other independent experts.

On Tuesday, Boehner presented a plan to his conference that looked similar to a bipartisan deal taking shape in the Senate. Like the Senate plan, it would have funded the government until Jan. 15 and raised the debt ceiling until Feb. 7, according to lawmakers and aides.

Boehner’s version also would have suspended the Obamacare medical device tax for two years, eliminated health care benefits for lawmakers and Cabinet officials, and scrapped a Senate provision to eliminate an Obamacare fee on reinsuring health plans.

But during the GOP’s weekly conference meeting Tuesday morning — which started with a rousing rendition of “Amazing Grace” led by former funeral director Steve Southerland II of Florida — the plan suffered its own kind of funeral. It became clear to leaders there wouldn’t be enough GOP votes to pass it without Democratic support, which looked fleeting.

The Cruz-led conservatives were the most obstinate obstacles. Later in the day, when leaders amended their proposal, it still wasn’t enough for conservatives. The House Rules Committee on Tuesday night had to postpone a meeting to ready the bill for the floor.

As a result, those lawmakers may be unintentionally teaming up with Democrats to prevent Boehner from having any say on the final compromise. GOP moderates are sick of it.

“These are not conservatives that do this,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., told CNN on Tuesday afternoon. “To be a conservative, you have to know how to count. And we started off in this without even counting the votes.”

Nunes said the Obamacare-defunding strategy was doomed from the start, calling it “lunacy, plain and simple.” He said the emerging deal in the Senate would show Americans “those that came here to actually govern and make law and actually do something with their voting card versus people who just want to vote ‘no.’”

If mutiny occurs, it will likely be said to have started in the basement of Tortilla Coast, a Capitol Hill eatery. That’s where Cruz and 15 to 20 House Republicans met Monday night to discuss “our strategy going forward,” according to Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, who was at the private dinner meeting.

The lawmakers who met with Cruz were a hodgepodge of Republican troublemakers who have often been thorns in the side of GOP leadership, including: Stutzman, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Steve King of Iowa, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas and Justin Amash of Michigan.

Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters on Tuesday that by amending the Senate plan at all, Republicans were trying to “snatch confrontation from the jaws of reasonable agreement.”

The White House also ripped the new GOP plan, once again calling the proposal a “ransom” and saying it was “a partisan attempt to appease a small group of tea party Republicans who forced the government shutdown in the first place.”

But if Democrats didn’t like that plan, then they definitely aren’t going to like the GOP’s latest iteration: No medical device tax suspension, but a continuing resolution date of Dec. 15 and the original Vitter amendment, which would eliminate health care subsidies for congressional and executive staff as well as members and Cabinet officials.

That offer is so bad in the eyes of Democrats that even if it passed the House (in no way a certain outcome), the Senate appears ready to reject it outright. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would probably use the procedural benefits of the House measure, amend it with the Senate language and send it back to the House.

That’s if he gets a bill at all. House leaders Tuesday evening still had not decided whether they would move ahead with their revised plan or just scrap it and wait for the Senate bill. If they move ahead, House members may be doing Reid a favor by giving him a vehicle and the procedural leverage to avoid dilatory tactics by Cruz and his main Senate ally, Mike Lee of Utah.

Then Boehner will face the same dilemma he has faced all along: Allow a vote on the CR-turned-debt-limit bill and face a conservative mutiny, or delay a vote and risk pinning the party with the blame for default.

Many think Boehner will cave, including Cruz and his House followers. They fear Boehner seems prepared to pass the deal with less than a majority of Republicans and a solid block of Democratic votes — perhaps all 200 of them, according to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who told Bloomberg News her caucus is united behind the Senate plan.

That eventuality will make many inside and outside the GOP conference wonder why Republicans withstood a government shutdown and a poll numbers lashing just to accept a plan endorsed by the opposition.

Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who was a leader in a moderate blowback against the Cruz crowd, said everyone was a loser on this deal and this process.

“Nobody comes out of this a winner,” Dent said. “Everybody comes out losers. Just a matter of who loses more.”

Emma Dumain and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.