Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), has effectively declared war against the conservative members of the GOP caucus, as well as the Tea Party and other outside conservative groups. Not only did he attack outside groups twice in as many days, but he pushed through the Ryan-Murray budget compromise in 36 hours on a deeply lopsided vote, 333-94, that will likely free his hand to disregard future conservative opposition.
In September and October, Boehner allowed House conservatives to guide Republican strategy during the federal government shutdown. His pushback is a sign of the conservatives’ weakness after the shutdown ended in a perceived defeat for the GOP–even though the Obama administration now admits that it would have been far better to delay the launch of Obamacare, which was the conservatives’ key demand in the shutdown fight.
Conservative blogger Erick Erickson speculated at RedState that Boehner intended to marginalize conservative lawmakers now in order to pave the way for the passage of “comprehensive” immigration reform legislation early next year. “Boehner needs to draw fence sitters to him, make conservative groups unpopular, and then dare the fence sitters to go sit with the unpopular crowd during the immigration fight,” Erickson wrote.
Business groups, some of which have pledged to work against House conservatives in upcoming primary contests, applauded the budget deal. Ironically, House conservatives found an unlikely ally in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who objected to giving up the sequester cuts that were the Tea Party’s major achievement to date. McConnell opposed the shutdown and faces a Tea Party challenger in his 2014 primary.
There is a high political risk for Boehner in his aggressive tactics, in that his position as Speaker will be far less certain in the next Congress even if Republicans do retain the majority. The advantage he holds is that very few of the incumbent Republican members of the House will face strong Tea Party candidates, and that Tea Party leadership within the caucus has been decentralized. Some key Tea Party figures also lost their seats in 2012.
In addition, it is possible that Boehner and the current House Republican leaders will overplay their hand by angering conservative voters so much that they stay home next November. That could happen if the Speaker pushes through immigration legislation that conservatives fault for granting legal status to illegal aliens before securing the borders. Unless the Tea Party develops an effective response, both sides could go down to defeat.