On Thursday evening, the House of Representatives did the unthinkable: It passed a bipartisan budget by a whopping 332 to 94 votes.
Known these days as the dysfunctional, Tea Party-dominated, awkward step-child of the three branches of government, the Republican House leadership proved, for once, they were still in charge.
The leadership threw itself fully behind the budget agreement and praised their chief negotiator, Republican Representative Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, for his work with the Democratic Senate in shaping the deal.
When conservative outside groups denounced the agreement, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, turned on them.
“You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it?” he asked on Wednesday. “They’re using our members and they’re using the American people for their own goals.”
On Thursday, he turned up the heat on his ideological opponents.
“I just think that they’ve lost all credibility,” he said. “They pushed us into this fight to defund Obamacare and to shut down the government. Most of you know, my members know, that wasn’t exactly the strategy that I had in mind.
“But if you recall, the day before the government reopened, one of the people at one of these groups stood up and said, ‘Well, we never really thought it would work.’ Are you kidding me?”
As Boehner’s animated “are you kidding me?” line became a viral GIF Thursday, the question became: Is this an all-out war between GOP leadership and influential outside groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth?
Has Boehner really had it up to here with them? Who wins the stand-off between the competing wings of the Republican Party? And will their divisions be healed in time for November’s mid-terms and the presidential election of 2016?
According to Newt Gingrich, who held Boehner’s position as speaker from 1995 to 1998 and is currently a host on CNN's Crossfire, it’s more likely that Boehner saw the budget deal – and averting another government shutdown – as a political necessity rather than an all-out break up with the Tea Party.
“I think if you are trying to preside over a majority, you’re always pulled and pushed, and you always have people who are going to aggressively disagree with you,” Gingrich told Newsweek. “Sometimes you just get tired of it.”
Even if conservatives didn’t love every part of the budget agreement, negotiated between Senator Patty Murray and Ryan, it made sense politically for Boehner to see it through. Otherwise, Americans may well have decided to punish the GOP for shutting down the government twice in a few months.
For Gingrich, it all comes down to 2014.
“I’m personally not particularly happy with this budget agreement,” Gingrich said, lambasting the compromise for raising both taxes and spending (the tax issue is largely semantic; the budget’s Republican defenders argue the deal’s surcharge on airline travel is a fee, not a tax).
“But I understand strategically, if you want to keep the focus on the collapse of Obamacare, you want to set up a disastrous 2014 campaign for the Democrats, this may have been politically a very smart strategy even if, in terms of the actual budget itself, it’s not very desirable.
“I think their number one goal was to eliminate the risk of a shutdown, because I think the feeling on the Republican side is, we could pick up as many as eight Senate seats if we can keep things focused on what’s wrong with Obamacare and not get back into another government shutdown.”
The jury is still out on what the Affordable Care Act will mean to voters next November. While Gingrich predicts it will be a liability, Democrats argue that as Americans come to fully understand the implications of Obamacare, it will gain popularity. The story of the botched rollout is likely to quiet down, but implementation seems to be going well in some states and poorly in others, likely leaving room for attacks in Republican-run states where the law is not being put into place fully or effectively.
Certainly, it’s hard to see a law nicknamed after President Obama playing well in conservative states where Democrats are up for re-election. Still, it’s not hard to see why shifting the narrative to Republican obstruction if no budget deal was reached would have been harmful to the GOP.
If that’s the case, then the budget agreement may not herald the arrival of a new era of bipartisan lawmaking, and Boehner and Ryan may return to conciliating conservative outside spending groups. In other words, rather than launch an all-out war, this may have just been one battle the GOP felt it had to fight.
Gingrich dubs Washington today a “mess,” a “right-left deadlock that has almost no new ideas.” These outside groups, that score votes and scare Republican lawmakers by funding primary challengers from the right, are a “a noisy part of the current mess; they’re not necessarily the solution.”
So now Boehner has proved himself willing to break through the mess to get something done when elections are on the line; now that the Band-Aid has been ripped off, with all the wailing that entails, maybe he can do it again. When advocates launch a renewed push for immigration reform in the first months of 2014, maybe Boehner, knowing his party needs to grow its support among Latinos, will once again tell outside groups to take a hike.
That’s exactly how conservative commentator Erick Erickson interpreted Boehner’s comments on Heritage, FreedomWorks, and the other outside groups.
“John Boehner is trying to get the ‘Us vs. Them’ battle lines drawn before primary season,” he wrote on his blog, RedState.com. “He needs those lines drawn because he is about to move on to the immigration fight. To get to that fight, he has to take on the conservative movement in a number of primaries around the country. His temper tantrum had very little to do with the present fight, but the next fight.”
Time will tell whether Boehner’s attack was about just the budget or is part of a wider strategy. But one thing seems clear: Boehner, who is known to choose his words carefully, probably didn’t lash out by accident.
“I would never say that John Boehner throws a line away,” Representative Darrell Issa, R-California, said Thursday of Boehner’s comments. “I would say just the opposite, that he recognized it’s time for him to say that Chairman Ryan got all that he could get under the current situation and it’s time for us to move on, and it’s time for us to show the leadership of keeping the government open, reducing the growth of government as much as we can with the votes we were given by the American people.”
Looking ahead, Gingrich predicted that if an era of conciliation is upon us – and he’s skeptical that there is – it may well be Democrats making the effort to compromise every bit as much as Republicans.
“When you think the Democrats might lose eight Senate seats, I do think that the pressure on the Democrats in the Senate to move toward the center is going to become much greater,” he said. “As Obamacare continues to collapse, I think you’re going to see a lot more pressure for the Democrats to find ways to work with Republicans so they can go back home and claim they are doing something. And that may change things a lot.”