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

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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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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.

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.”

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."