WASHINGTON – House Speaker John Boehner’s job is safe despite passing yet another big bill that most of his Republican colleagues oppose, as he did Tuesday to avert defunding the Department of Homeland Security.
But Boehner and his leadership team appear destined to confront fratricidal fights for months to come. The friction exposes deep GOP ideological differences as the 2016 presidential campaign gets under way.
For all the Washington chatter of a possible Republican coup against Boehner – the perpetually tanned, cigarette-smoking deal-maker from Ohio – few lawmakers gave it credence Tuesday.
“It would take Democrat cooperation to do that, which is never going to happen,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, a frequent critic of Republican leaders. The mere subject, he said, “is irrelevant.”
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GOP Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona said he, too, opposed the bill advanced by his party’s leaders, “but I’m not mad at them.”
Boehner’s allies say rebellious conservatives realize he protects them from trouble by letting them cast politically safe votes while he taps Democrats to avert public-relations disasters. Past episodes avoided a government default on debts and the halting of a massive “Fiscal Cliff” tax increase. On Tuesday, Boehner’s concession prevented shuttering the Homeland Security agency.
“John Boehner, honestly, in a number of cases saved the Republican conference from itself,” said GOP Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
Cole said he doesn’t think relying heavily on Democratic votes is a “new normal.” But he conceded the Republican-led Congress faces even tougher choices ahead, including another debt limit showdown this year, in which scores of conservatives are unlikely to help.
Most House Republicans refused to fund Homeland Security this year unless President Barack Obama’s executive actions liberalizing deportation policies were overturned. The Senate blocked the plan.
Stymied, Boehner agreed Tuesday to advance a Homeland Security funding bill with no immigration strings attached.
All 182 Democrats in the chamber voted for it, along with 75 Republicans. But 167 Republicans voted against it, a striking rebuke to a leadership-backed bill.
Heightening the party’s intramural angst were new political ads by the American Action Network, run by Boehner’s allies. They began running Tuesday in the districts of about 50 House Republicans who defied him on Homeland Security last week.
The $400,000 campaign includes phone calls, a few TV ads, and ads on popular conservative talk radio shows. They urged constituents to call their representatives, not vote them out of office.
Several targeted Republicans shrugged off the impact.
“We’re all big boys and girls, and we know that’s what you get into in this business,” Mulvaney told reporters. Still, he said, it “makes you scratch your head” to attend a meeting on Republican unity and “get a text from your office” saying a group tied to the speaker “is running ads against you in the district.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, one of Boehner’s harshest GOP critics, said he thinks it is “unprecedented for a speaker of the House to so lose control of his chamber that he’s attacking the base of the party.” He predicted the ads would backfire, telling his staff, “Make sure our website’s up and running to get campaign contributions, because I think that’s what’s going to be happening.”
Huelskamp said a fierce struggle between establishment Republicans and “grassroots conservatives” is brewing. “The war is on,” he said.
But many other House conservatives seemed ready to move on, saying Boehner is safe as speaker. “I’ve not seen anyone come forward and say he wants the job,” said Rep. Joe Barton of Texas.
Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana said, “There are no plans, no discussions about removing the speaker.”
Tuesday’s vote didn’t rule out future efforts to defund government agencies if Obama won’t yield to Republicans’ wishes on issues, including deportation. Some Republicans said they “took the wrong hostage” in targeting Homeland Security, a popular agency when terrorist threats abound.
“If we had been serious about this fight,” said GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, it would “have focused on the EPA or the IRS or the Department of Labor. Now those are departments which a majority would be prepared to allow funding to temporarily expire in order to use as leverage to stop the president’s illegal and unconstitutional amnesty.”
Tuesday’s vote was perhaps the final coffin nail in the “Hastert Rule,” promulgated by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. He said a speaker should not allow votes on major bills opposed by most of his caucus.
More than two-thirds of House Republicans voted against the DHS bill Boehner offered Tuesday.
Cole, often tasked to explain congressional realities, said in an interview: “The Hastert rule’s a rule until it’s not.”