When conservative outside groups fail to defeat a bill in Congress, the cheers come from all over D.C. Business groups mock the incompetence of the groups; Republican leaders declare that they've been taught a hard lesson by the shutdown; Democrats just like to see 'em lose. The House's passage last week of the highway trust fund bill overcame opposition from the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, which made the passage look like a big win. (Easy to forget that it was the latest way to mark time because Republicans and endangered Democrats don't want to raise the gas tax.)
There's been less coverage of this week's narrow conservative win. The Securing Energy Critical Elements and American Jobs Act, or SECEAJA (not a lot of thought put into that acronym), was the brainchild of Rep. Eric Swalwell, a freshman Democrat from Nothern California. If Swalwell succeeded, his bill would have replaced a 30-year-old rare earth elements bill with a new regime that would reward companies/researchers who were stretching the uses of the elements. (This is superficially pretty boring, so the lack of coverage makes sense. I certainly didn't notice it!) A previous version of the bill, for example, would have given the Department of Energy a new ability to make loan guarantees "for the commercial application of new or significantly improved technologies."*
Loan guarantees? Shades of Solyndra; shades of the Export-Import Bank. It was easy for conservative groups to make a case against this bill, even after the guarantees were removed. Picking themselves right up after the highway fund defeat, Heritage Action and the Club for Growth told conservatives to kill the bill. Rather than incentivizing new programs, argued Heritage, "the government should open access to the 13 states where rare earths lie and establish an efficient regulatory pathway that provides companies the certainty needed to extract REE." The club, warning about the loan guarantees: "We can only assume that supporters of this bill will seek to implement these guarantees after this program has firmly found its place in the federal government after a few years."
It worked. Swalwell's bill was introduced under suspension of the rules, protecting from amendments (like, say, one that would legalize mining in public land, which was the gist of Heritage's argument). The bill needed 269 votes; it topped out at 260. A majority of the GOP conference, 142 members, voted "no."
Swalwell immediately fingered the conservative groups, accusing Republicans of being cowed, panicking that "the Department of Defense will continue to be at the mercy of China." Certainly, the groups aren't turning down credit. This little vote was actually the first defeat of Rep. Kevin McCarthy's new career as majority leader. He supported the bill. His new whip, Rep. Steve Scalise—a conservative who came to the job from the Republican Study Committee—voted against it. He was joined by Rep. Peter Roskam, the "establishment" candidate he beat for the whip job.
*Correction, July 28, 2014: This post originally misstated that the bill would enable the Department of Energy to make loan guarantees. The guarantees were stripped from a compromise version of the bill.