Why This Round of the Republican Civil War Was Different

GOP leaders finally had enough with conservatives' antics and decided to take back control. It worked, and we got a budget deal.
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J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Another round of the long-running GOP civil war broke out this week, and you could be forgiven for greeting it with a yawn. House Speaker John Boehner proposed something; conservatives immediately rose up against it, egged on by right-wing pressure groups. News flash: There's disunity in the Republican ranks.

But this chapter of the story turned out very differently than last time, when the clash between the Republican establishment and grassroots memorably ended in a two-and-a-half-week government shutdown. This time, it’s ending with a bipartisan budget deal, brokered by GOP Representative Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray, that will keep the government open for more than a year. The House passed the bill by a resounding 332-to-94 margin Thursday evening, putting final passage in the hands of the Senate.

So what happened? Why didn’t those Tea Party lawmakers and conservative groups get their way? Here’s what happened: Boehner took control.

That's the instantly famous clip from Boehner's news conference Thursday morning. Reporters were asking him to respond to the outside groupsHeritage Action, Americans for Prosperity, and the Club for Growth, to name a fewthat had come out against the deal and were threatening to punish House members who disagreed.

“Frankly, I think that they’ve lost all credibility,” Boehner said. “They pushed us into the fight to defund Obamacare and to shut down the government.” And then, he noted, some of them even admitted they never thought that ill-fated tactic would actually work. “Are you kidding me?”

Not much gets Boehner worked up. He is laid back to a fault. But the revelation that he and his fellow lawmakers were essentially pawns in a game played by agitators accountable to no one was too much for him to stomach. This week, he decided to prove that he is in charge. 

Boehner’s willingness to publicly express the frustration many Republicans have privately felt with the groups’ tactics was a turning point. House leaders stopped trying to get along with the enforcers of an impossible conservative standard and started fighting back.

There was another, less public development this week that represented a similar turn. The Republican Study Committee, a group of House Republicans who meet weekly to talk about policy and tactics, had long served as a venue for conservative members and outside groups, chiefly the Heritage Foundation, to plot strategy together. But on Wednesday, the committee’s chairman, Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise, fired longtime Executive Director Paul Teller, accusing him of betraying lawmakers’ trust by leaking to outside groups.

That was precisely the point. Republican lawmakers were sick of being at the mercy of outside agitators whose demands they viewed as increasingly impossible. In 2011, a Teller deputy urged conservative groups to oppose the debt-ceiling deal that lawmakers were trying to reach; he was almost fired then. This September, lawmakers believe Teller helped gin up conservative resistance to a government-funding deal that would have averted the shutdown. And during the negotiations for the present deal, even as lawmakers tried to reach accord inside the Capitol, Teller, they charge, was working to undermine the agreement by sharing confidential details with groups like Heritage—which came out against the plan before Ryan and Murray even announced it. The firing sent shockwaves through the conservative-activist community, where Teller is well-known and well-liked. Dozens of conservative leaders signed on to a letter of protest that called him “one of the true heroes of the conservative movement.” He immediately became a sort of martyr, his dismissal a symbol of House leaders’ attack on their erstwhile conservative allies.

But some conservatives acknowledge Teller had gone too far and say he deserved to be ousted. “I like Paul,” one GOP consultant who works with Congress told me. “But if he wanted to work for Heritage, he should have gone and worked for Heritage.”

The broad approval of the budget deal demonstrated a few things. First, it showed the enormous credibility Ryan has with his colleagues. Many gave the deal more of a hearing than they might have because of Ryan’s long track record of conservative policy proposals and his good relationships with other lawmakers and activists on the right. Second, it showed that Republicans learned a major lesson from the shutdown. Few want to go down that road again given the political price they paid and given the policy argument about the health-care law that Republicans generally think they are winning. Nearly three-quarters of House Republicans, 169, voted for the deal, while just 62 opposed it.

The conservative pressure groups have power because of their threatened ability to oust lawmakers who don't meet their standard. But now Boehner, Ryan, and the rest of the Republican leaders have defied them, essentially calling their bluff. Can they really exact revenge on three-quarters of the House Republicans? Or will they have to accept that they’re not in charge anymore?

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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