RSC in the News
House Conservatives Push on Policy
The Republican Study Committee has always been a thorn in the side of House GOP leaders, pushing Republicans to go further right on virtually every major policy issue.
But now that the conservative caucus — with 170-plus members — is bigger, more ambitious and more influential, not only is it causing tension for Republican leaders on issues like spending, but it has the numbers and power to actually force shifts in policy, instead of just acting as an irritant on behalf of conservatives. And even though the RSC and Republican leaders are on the same page on hot-button issues like health reform and abortion policy, the group is pressuring leaders not to stray from party dogma and seek consensus in areas like foreign policy and immigration.
The job of chief agitator has fallen to new RSC Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, a previously little-known conservative backbencher, and he realizes his role is to make things uncomfortable at times for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
How Boehner manages this massive — and often impatient — caucus of conservatives is critical to keeping the peace for a new Republican majority that’s trying to balance the conservative principles it campaigned on and the reality of governing in a divided Washington.
“We want the House to go to the Senate in the strongest possible position” on budget cuts, Jordan said. “We are reminding Republicans that we should act like us.”
As Republican leaders try to project a picture of unity in the opening days of their new majority, members of the RSC seem to welcome the tension over how far to push certain policies.
“Jim is standing up to the leadership,” said Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, a vocal advocate of more spending cuts. “He is not playing gotcha with them. We want them to keep our promises.”
Rep. John Campbell of California, another RSC member, said the big challenges conservatives face in the spending debate include dealing with Boehner, a longtime critic of appropriators and their earmarks who now needs the panel’s help to make massive spending cuts.
“The spending culture in this building is very strong. We are trying to break up the spending cabal,” Campbell said. He added that the Jordan-led group is “willing to take political risks” of offending interest groups, their constituencies and the old ways of doing business with federal handouts.
Managing these internal relationships and expectations in the budget debate already has emerged as a tough test for the new Republican majority. House conservatives — especially the 87 freshmen — want big change, and they have focused on cutting at least $100 billion from current domestic spending programs.
But party leaders have scaled back that task just a bit. They are urging their members to take the longer view of this year’s multistep budget debate, with their expected plan to cut “only” $58 billion in domestic funds over the next seven months.
Republican leaders are trying to downplay these internal tensions and focus on the bigger picture as the House, in the next two weeks, takes up the continuing resolution to fund the government for the remainder of this fiscal year. In contrast to President Barack Obama, who has called for only a limited spending freeze, Boehner has said, “There is no limit to the amount of spending we’re willing to cut.”
But contrasting himself with Democrats on spending is the easy part for Boehner. The harder part will be placating conservatives.
In a letter last week co-signed by Jordan and 87 other House Republicans, New Jersey Rep. Scott Garrett, who chairs the RSC’s budget and spending task force, reminded Boehner of the GOP’s campaign pledge to cut $100 billion in spending by returning to 2008 spending levels for domestic discretionary funds. “It is critical that our conference, at a minimum, meet the original $100 billion savings goal through the CR,” which is scheduled for the House floor the week of Feb. 14.
The GOP leaders and the appropriators have not explicitly stated how much spending they intend to slash. Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is expected to specify that sum in a notice to the House early next week. But Jordan, like others, said he expects the appropriators “likely will propose” $58 billion in cuts — a number that will fall short of RSC expectations.
Conservative lawmakers made clear at their retreat last weekend at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., that they will demand an amount in triple figures — not least because the Congressional Budget Office last week increased this year’s deficit projection to $1.5 trillion.
“The freshmen believe that we can get there. The left will criticize whatever savings we can find. We should do what the [campaign] pledge says,” Jordan said. “We want to show that we are getting spending under control.”
Four days before last fall’s elections, Boehner joined a get-out-the-vote rally in Lima, in Jordan’s district, where Jordan praised his work for “our hometown team.” The ambitious lawmaker, 46, a former college wrestling champion, has been mentioned as a possible Senate candidate in Ohio next year.
Boehner often says that he will match his conservative credentials with anyone else’s. And his leadership team is filled with card-carrying conservatives — including two recent chairmen of the RSC. In interviews this week, they sought to downplay any internal conflict and to embrace Jordan and his leadership, while showing that Republicans are producing change.
“The job of the RSC, in many respects, is to move the [Republican] Conference to the most conservative position. The job of leadership is to pass laws. They are different roles,” said conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas. “Our fight is not among ourselves but with the Democrats. ... At the end of the day, we will come together as a team.”
House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price of Georgia, who succeeded Hensarling as RSC chairman, said the group’s role is to “bring to the fore the imperative of sticking to fundamental principles.” Conceding that some tension is inevitable, he added, “Everybody has their role. The conference is greater than the sum of its parts.”
With its more than 170 members, Jordan’s group cannot be ignored. But its challenge is to find the 218 votes it needs to pass legislation — especially on spending cuts. And that may be difficult with this month’s funding bill, especially if the Appropriations Committee sets the marker at $58 billion.
Some conservatives are seething that GOP leaders may be stacking the deck against them by forcing conservatives to achieve their goal through amendments on the House floor.
“It will be hard to defeat the appropriators if they are joining the Democrats,” said one insider. The risk for party leaders, he added, is that some conservatives may vote against final approval of the bill if the cuts aren’t large enough. Only a handful of House Democrats are expected to vote for the cuts.
Republican leaders are also trying to soothe the concerns of an ambitious freshman class, telling its members that the continuing resolution spending plan is only the start of the budget debate.
“Their ideas are being considered, and the House will have multiple bites at the apple. The goal is for floor votes on all appropriations bills by this summer,” said a senior House aide who is working on the spending bill. “It will be a historically open House debate” this month — and beyond.
While seeking to avoid antagonism with conservatives, House leadership sources also quietly grumbled that the RSC and its allies are looking to Boehner and other party leaders to carry their water, while overlooking the larger difficulties of moving the spending cuts through the House and eventually finding common ground with the Democratic-controlled Senate and Obama.
“They complain that leadership is too much involved, except when they want our help,” said a leadership aide.