WASHINGTON — In an uncharacteristically forceful tone, House Speaker John A. Boehner on Wednesday lambasted the conservative advocacy groups that helped bring his party to power, saying their opposition to a bipartisan budget proposal amounted to an effort to manipulate Republicans and the American people "for their own goals."
The rare outburst from the often poker-faced speaker, a reversal of his past approach toward influential conservative groups, underscored long-simmering tensions between them and mainstream Republicans, who appear to be moving to reestablish their control over the party's agenda.
The hard-line groups have bedeviled Boehner and his leadership team all year by opposing efforts to compromise with Democrats and influencing primary campaigns aimed at unseating establishment Republicans, whom they accuse of abandoning conservative ideals on controlling government spending.
Boehner's words also reflected his apparent confidence that the recently announced $85-billion budget deal will be approved by the House this week despite attacks by conservative groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action. Even if as many as 100 Republicans vote against it, as some predicted, Boehner is counting on Democrats to make up the shortfall, something he has been loath to do in the past.
Only weeks ago, Boehner sidestepped questions about the influence of the outside groups, who promote limited government and are mostly funded by rich conservative donors and business leaders. When asked in late October how they were affecting his members, Boehner answered simply: "Pass."
Though tensions have been rising for the last two years, Republican leaders resisted airing the frustrations publicly. But on Wednesday, tensions boiled over. At a news conference on the budget plan, Boehner interrupted a question about the developing opposition from conservative groups to charge that they "opposed it before they ever saw it."
"They're using our members and they're using the American people for their own goals," Boehner said. "This is ridiculous. If you're for more deficit reduction, you're for this agreement."
The outburst was long in gestation, Republicans close to Boehner said, and stemmed in part from many of the groups' support for a strategy led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that triggered the government shutdown in October. Boehner and other GOP leaders believe, as polls show, that it damaged the party.
"Boehner had warned them, having gone through this before, that this was a route that would not reap the rewards that people thought," said David Winston, a Republican pollster who has advised the House GOP. "And he was correct."
The speaker's comments followed other recent attacks on the groups, notably by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who accused PACs like the Senate Conservatives Fund — which is funding a tea party challenger to unseat him — of being "counterproductive" and misleading voters "for profit."
Congress' expected passage of the tentative budget deal — forged by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — appears to have emboldened Boehner to let go of his previous cautiousness. If the budget deal is approved, Boehner is betting that the groups' influence will wane, allowing him to shift the party's agenda to defeating Democrats in 2014 and maintaining the party's focus on emphasizing the president's botched rollout of Obamacare.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) signaled a new approach in a speech to Virginia Republicans last weekend, saying the GOP "cannot succeed if we are fractured."
"We need to be focused on dividing Democrats, not dividing each other," he said.
Thursday's expected vote on the new budget agreement will serve as a key test. Heritage Action, one of the most influential conservative groups, has urged lawmakers to vote against it, and said it would consider their votes in its influential rating system, which can be an important factor in Republican primary politics. FreedomWorks, the tea party umbrella group, and Club for Growth are also urging a no vote.
Any agreement that "increases both spending and taxes is NOT a deal, it's a scam!" FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said in an email to supporters.
Boehner's outburst drew both cheers and grumbles from rank-and-file lawmakers — some of whom have grown weary of the outsized roles the groups play.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), a Boehner ally, said the speaker seized on the fact that some groups were mobilizing against the plan even before it was fully drafted.
"That's where you're not even being constructive," he said. "I think that gave the speaker enough room to come out and say, 'OK, we can't deal with this anymore.' And what he told the members was, 'Do you represent your constituents and control your voting card, or are you going to turn it over to somebody else?'"
He said the groups had overplayed their hand, particularly in the push to defund Obamacare that led to the government shutdown.
"After the disastrous shutdown debacle, I think they lost a lot of credibility," Nunes said. "We want those groups to be constructive. But they're going to have to start doing things like they used to — be policy people first and actually support conservative interests, and not just spark a war within the Republican Party."
Others saw the speaker's criticism as an overreach. Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) said Boehner overemphasized the groups' influence on lawmakers. "I don't give a rat's rear end what any of those groups think," she said. "I don't need to be told that I'm the only one who has control of my voting card."
Conservative groups have also angered Republican leaders by backing at least half a dozen Republican challengers in primary races next year in states including Texas, Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina. Just this week, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) announced he would challenge the Senate's No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn.
But Boehner's rebuke drew a counterattack.
"Apparently, there are some Republicans who don't have the stomach for even relatively small spending reductions that are devoid of budgetary smoke and mirrors," said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, a former member of the House. "We support pro-growth proposals when they are considered by Congress. In our evaluation, this isn't one of those."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun