Will House Conservatives Wreck the Budget Deal?

The right isn't wild about the bipartisan funding agreement reached Tuesday, but no revolt big enough to stop it appears to be brewing.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

When Paul Ryan got up to announce the bipartisan budget deal Tuesday evening, the chairman of the House Budget Committee looked nervous. "I see this as a step in the right direction," he said. "In divided government, you don't always get what you want. That said, we can still make progress toward our goals."

The task ahead for Ryan was clear: to sell this agreement to the unpredictable and often intransigent members of his own caucus of House Republicans, who are automatically assumed to be the biggest obstacle to getting anything done on Capitol Hill. As soon as he and Senator Patty Murray, his Democratic partner in the deal, finished speaking, reporters immediately pelted Ryan with questions about whether conservatives would support it. Ryan began speaking very fast. "As a conservative ... I think conservatives should vote for it, and I think it will pass the House," he said.

The conservative revolt against the deal had actually begun before it was announced, with groups like Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity preemptively urging "no" votes based on unofficial accounts leaked to the press. Post-announcement, Senator Marco Rubio rushed out a statement calling it "irresponsible." The Tea Party Express was "disappointed."

But the question that will determine the budget deal's fate is whether this is a manageable level of performative dissent—or whether it will turn into the sort of all-out right-wing crusade like the one that led to the government shutdown in October. So far, signs mostly point to the former.

On Wednesday morning, eight conservative members of Congress gathered for a discussion with reporters hosted by the Heritage Foundation. They did not like the deal. It undoes many of the spending cuts imposed by sequestration in exchange for hypothetical spending cuts several years in the future, and it doesn't reform entitlements, they complained. "I'm undecided. I haven't decided whether I'm a really strong 'no,'" or just a 'no,'" joked Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho.

But the conservatives seemed resigned to the agreement. Ryan and Speaker John Boehner had briefed the conference on it earlier in the day, and no revolt seemed to be brewing. "This bill was designed to pass with bipartisan support in the House," said Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina. "It was not designed to get most of the people on this dais." The far right and far left could cast their protest votes against it, but with the bulk of both parties supporting it, it would easily pass. The agreement is expected to come to the floor of the House on Thursday.

Reporters at the briefing also wanted to know if Ryan, by making this deal, would be seen as having sold out the right. The former vice-presidential nominee had previously been known for pushing a big-idea budget plan centered around reforming Medicare. The budget deal was a clear bid by Ryan to temper his ideological profile and be seen as a pragmatist with leadership qualities. But would teaming up with Murray get him branded a sellout by the conservative grassroots, the way Rubio was for pushing immigration reform?

His conservative colleagues rebuffed that notion, extolling Ryan's conservative credibility and saying he'd done the best he could in difficult circumstances. "He got the best deal he could, but he was up against a liberal-controlled Senate that completely disregarded the law of the land," said Representative Andy Harris. "This will not diminish his standing in any way," added Representative Vicky Hartzler, who said it was only out of respect for Ryan that she hadn't ruled out voting for the deal. "He has been a marvelous soldier in coming to this agreement."

The conservatives' tone was downcast: They seemed to know they'd been beaten. "I suspect that in the next couple of weeks you will see the standing of Republicans go down, because once again we are making empty promises to the American people," Labrador said. "Congress has an 8 or 9 percent favorable rating because we continue to spend. We continue to make promises to the American people that we don't keep."