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.

Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Shortly after 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day, 89 senators finally passed a cobbled-together deal to avert the “fiscal cliff.” The big House Republican meet-up, the one that could end America’s least favorite epic drama, would come at 1 p.m. Reporters welcomed 2013 with cheap champagne in the Capitol rotunda.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Then, shortly after noon, while Vice President Joe Biden was telling House Democrats to back the bill, Republicans were telling reporters to check their optimism. This was not the come-to-Jesus meeting to whip votes. This would be a “conversation,” a Festivus-like airing of grievances. Some time later, the Republican conference would meet to talk about passing the bill. When would they vote on it? Ask again later.

The worries were justified. Inside the conference, as Speaker of the House John Boehner stayed neutral, member after member got up to denounce the deal. Majority Leader Eric Cantor warned that he did not support the bill in its current form. “When the leader speaks,” said one Republican member, “people listen more closely.” His defiance meant a lot more than some panicky Senate votes.


“We should not take a package put together by a bunch of octogenarians on New Year's Eve,” said Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette inside the meeting. After he left the room, Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston joked that the deal passed only because “it was way past those senators’ bedtimes and they had blurry eyes when they were reading” it. House Republicans? Why, they were “trying to fill in the gaps they might have missed.”

Time and again, Washington is shocked by two incredibly well-known facts about House Republicans. One: They believe all of that stuff they tell their conservative audiences, from the town halls to the Sean Hannity remote feed. They ran in 2010 promising never to raise taxes and to take a samurai sword to the budget. Whatever Paul Ryan asked them to cut, they voted to cut. Two: Most of these members come from safe districts where the only threats to re-election are primary challenges or death by natural causes.

And yet they’re never, ever allowed to govern the way they want. Assume that they end up caving and passing a fiscal cliff compromise [Update, Jan. 2: They did!]. That compromise punts the mandatory sequestration cuts from defense and discretionary spending, and ends the payroll tax cut and restores a higher tax rate on income above $450,000. If that happens, then for the third time in two years they’ve punted on huge spending cuts and entitlement reform, told once again that they can get them later. [Which is what happened late last night.]

Thus, the hours-long primal scream. When he left the afternoon meeting, Alabama Rep. Spencer Bachus said that the deal would have to be amended to include more spending cuts, which meant that it would go back to the Senate—he’d be “shocked” if it didn’t—which in turn meant that it would be doomed by Democrats who refused to entertain more changes. Wouldn’t that backfire on Republicans? “Sooner or later,” said Bachus, “you have to think that out-of-control spending is going to doom the markets.”

Bachus had to say that. In 2012, he held back a primary challenge from a Republican who’d run to his right, branding him a crooked compromiser. “Never has the anger in this country been so great,” said Bachus in his victory speech. “I can certainly identify with those who voted for someone else.”

You identify with it, or you lose. Consider the letdowns that conservatives had to put up with. In February 2011, they wanted to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government, with $100 billion in cuts. But the cuts, as presented to them by leadership, were based on old budget baselines. Some conservatives wanted to shut down the government. Their leaders convinced them to cave, because it would ruin their image. The savings earned after bitter negotiations were about half as big as promised.



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Learns That Breaking Up a Country Is Hard to Do

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.