Why House Republicans Threw a Tantrum Over the Fiscal-Cliff Deal

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 2 2013 10:42 AM

The House Republicans’ Primal Scream

And why their intransigence has become their own worst enemy.

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In the summer of 2011, they wanted to hike the debt limit only if it came with cuts as big as the spending hike, a Balanced Budget Amendment, and a new cap that would limit spending to 18 percent of GDP. They ended up settling for a debt limit hike tied to mandatory cuts that maybe, sort of, could be replaced by a grand bargain designed by a “supercommittee.” If the committee failed, the mandatory cuts would arrive in January 2013. Republicans were hopeful, and occasionally confident, that a new president from their own party would take point on fixing them. But that didn’t happen, and now Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham were telling their peers to “save your powder” by delaying those cuts until the next debt limit increase, in two months. Maybe they’d win a rematch.

“Sen. Graham was in favor of the debt deal that created the current situation,” scoffed Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp, whose profile has risen since he was removed from the budget committee in what he considers to have been an anti-conservative coup. “Here we are, 17 months after the debt limit, and the spending cut that’s supposed to take place is the one opposed by Republicans.”

“It’s a recurring poem, isn’t it?” said Arizona Rep. Trent Franks. “In the final analysis, a true statesman will look to the next generation, not the next election.”

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That’s a Manichean view of Congress, and it’s popular, but it’s done absolutely nothing for conservatives. Two weeks ago, the House tried and failed to avert the fiscal cliff by passing a big package of spending cuts and a tax increase on income above $1 million. The spending cuts barely passed; the tax increase was pulled for lack of support. Today, after the venting meeting, Republicans agreed to vote on an amendment that would add $328 billion of spending cuts to the deal, then—whether or not the amendment failed—vote on the deal itself.

The Senate Republicans had already broken their pledge to never back net tax increases. Now House Republicans, by proving that they couldn’t pass a deal with Republican votes, were breaking the “Hastert Rule.” The informal dictum, named for the unmemorable four-term Speaker Denny Hastert, was that bills would be brought to the floor only if they got a “majority of the majority.” Republicans wanted 217 votes, within their conference, but the membership kept being true to the conservative base, and denying them the numbers. Now, they’d have to settle for a bill they disliked, passing with minimal Republican support.

“If you want to have a spending fight, you don’t have to wait very long,” said Rep. Tom Cole on Tuesday. Cole, the media-friendly deputy whip, spent the entire fiscal cliff period suggesting ways for the party to save face, only to be undone by the party’s stubbornness. Now, he said, Republicans were going to learn the beauty of caving. “More members want this to pass than want to vote for it.”

And the members who really opposed it would be totally marginalized. Huelskamp was shocked at the very idea that Boehner would allow a bill to pass without majority Republican support. “I think most Republicans would be stunned if the speaker moved forward on something like that,” he said. “Denny Hastert wouldn’t have done it. Newt Gingrich wouldn’t have done it. Bob Livingston, who lasted all of 24 hours, wouldn’t have done it, if he’d ever had a chance. The Hastert Rule is pretty important. If you walk into a new Congress Thursday at noon, and your speaker just did something like that, it would stun Republicans.”

I reminded Huelskamp that something else was scheduled for Thursday at noon. The speaker would be officially voted in.

“Yeah, that vote would be that day!” said Huelskamp, warily. “Never thought of that.”

Update, 11:17 p.m., Jan. 1, 2013: Eight hours after the Republicans wrapped up that first, sad conference, the House passed the compromise bill 257-167. Only 85 of 240 Republicans voted "aye."