WASHINGTON – After years of bitter friction within Republican circles, House Speaker John Boehner is lashing out against hard-line conservative and tea party groups – the latest GOP establishment figure to join the increasingly public battle roiling the party.
For the second day in a row – but at greater length and with more passion – the Ohio Republican on Thursday lit into groups such as Heritage Action and Club for Growth. Though naming no names, he accused such groups and others of stirring up opposition on the right to a budget bill worked out with Democrats that would replace some across-the-board spending cuts now in place with longer-term savings.
“When groups come out and criticize an agreement that they’ve never seen, you begin to wonder just how credible those actions are,” he told reporters. That was just hours before the House was to vote on the bill, which also would raise government fees on airline tickets as well as pension insurance premiums on employers.
“Frankly, I just think they’ve lost all credibility,” he said of the foes.
Heritage Action was a key force behind the “defund Obamacare” effort that swept the right earlier this year and steamrolled stumbling House GOP leaders into October’s government shutdown fiasco. “They’re pushing our members into places where they don’t want to be,” Boehner complained Thursday.
Boehner is the latest in a line of establishment Republicans and their allies to mount counterattacks against tea party purists who are pushing the party to the right by stoking intra-GOP battles and primary challenges against longstanding incumbents such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho.
“Yesterday, when the criticism was coming, frankly I thought it was my job and my obligation to stand up for conservatives here in the Congress who want more deficit reduction,” Boehner said.
Club for Growth, which bundles contributions for the free-market conservatives it endorses and runs ads on their behalf, is supporting Simpson’s primary opponent.
Another group, the Senate Conservatives Fund started by former GOP Sen. and now Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, is raising money to run ads against McConnell and Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., each of whom is facing a tea party primary challenge.
McConnell orchestrated a boycott of a consulting firm that does business for the Senate Conservatives Fund after the group endorsed his primary opponent, businessman Matt Bevin.
Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched an ad backing Simpson, an eight-term Republican.
The Chamber’s involvement marked the second time in recent months that the group has taken the side of GOP establishment against conservative activists. The group backed Bradley Byrne over tea party favorite Dean Young in a special congressional runoff primary in Alabama, pumping at least $200,000 into the race. Byrne won the Nov. 5 contest.
Simpson’s primary challenger in Idaho, Bryan Smith, is being supported by the Club for Growth, a group that has helped topple Republican incumbents in past primaries, including longtime Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. But Democrat Joe Donnelly ended up winning Lugar’s seat in the general election, underscoring one of the complaints by mainstream Republicans – that hewing too far to the right is costing elections.
Conservative groups have taken on outsized importance as more GOP House members represent solidly Republican districts in which the only real threat the GOP feels is from tea party candidates running to their right.
The groups’ status in statewide Senate races is a little different. Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund on several instances have won the battle but caused Republicans to lose the war.
Over the past two election cycles, they’ve backed several flawed tea party candidates – Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri last year; Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado in 2010. All won the GOP primaries but lost to Democrats in general elections that Republicans felt they should have won.
Heritage Action, the advocacy wing of the Heritage Foundation, has lobbied aggressively against virtually every bipartisan piece of legislation that Boehner has advanced, including the small-scale budget pact that Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., negotiated with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Last fall, Heritage Action, along with Sens Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, pressed House Republicans to oppose a short-term spending bill that would fund implementation of the much-criticized health care law, even though GOP leaders thought it was a flawed, politically stupid strategy.
“They pushed us into the fight to defund Obamacare and shut down the government,” Boehner said. “That wasn’t exactly the strategy I had in mind. But if you recall, the day before the government reopened, one of these groups stood up and said, ‘Well, we never really thought it would work.’ Are you kidding me?”
Boehner was apparently alluding to an interview by Michael Needham, who runs Heritage Action, on Fox News in October.
“Well everybody understands that we’re not going to be able to repeal this law until 2017 and that we have to win the Senate and we have to win the White House,” Needham said on “America’s Newsroom.”
Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, said that Boehner was taking Needham’s words out of context. Holler also stood behind Heritage Action’s opposition to this week’s Boehner-backed budget deal, noting that the group was correct in predicting that the pact would increase deficits in the near term.
While holding a solidly conservative record over more than two decades in Congress, Boehner has backed must-pass compromise legislation as speaker to keep the government running and avoid an economically crippling default on U.S. obligations. Opposition from some conservative groups to those compromises has forced Boehner on several occasions to seek help from Democrats to pass them.
“I’m as conservative as anybody around this place,” Boehner said Thursday. “All of the things that we’ve done over the three years that I’ve been speaker have not violated any conservative principles. Not once.”