Conservatives came to Washington labeling President Obama as enemy number one. But increasingly they find themselves battling an even more powerful foe: Their own leadership. And it's not a fair fight.
The problem for members of the tea party is that the game is rigged against them, as they are repeatedly outmaneuvered and outsmarted procedurally. What they've found—and what Sen. Tom Cotton's controversial letter to Iran this week has proven—is that they're much better off taking the fight away from the House and Senate floors.
The vast majority of conservative firebrands have only been in Congress for a few years; House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have been here for decades. Every rule, every parliamentary trick that conservatives could use to stick it to their leadership, Boehner and McConnell have already thought of it and found another legislative tool to stop them.
Conservatives aren't so much bringing a knife to a gunfight, they're showing up in the wrong alley.
From debates over immigration and the Affordable Care Act that threatened to shut down the government to the "Doc Fix" fiasco last year, it's becoming increasingly clear to conservatives that they're playing a game they can't win. The leaders have the rule book and now matter how much conservatives study up, there will always be a new rule that benefits the establishment.
For leadership, an aide to a conservative House member said Wednesday, "there's always a way with the rules to achieve your ultimate goal. There's no way to really stop them. You can slow things down, but you can't stop it."
And so the tea party is trying a new tactic: Changing the game.
Just look at Cotton. His letter criticizing the administration's attempts to craft a deal with Iran—and his relentless pursuit of signatures from conservative and establishment Republicans—has driven the conversation in the Senate all week and has 2016 candidates clamoring to join his effort. Cotton, with a few mere months under his belt in the upper chamber, arguably holds more power on the issue of Iran right now than Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker and, perhaps, even McConnell himself.
Whether he can translate that into legislative victory remains to be seen, but Cotton is creating a model that conservatives hope to follow. But by getting out ahead of the issue, Cotton has forced leadership to include him in the conversation from the start, rather than having to try to outmaneuver the establishment in a floor fight after the fact.
What's often lost in those fights is that on the biggest issues facing Republicans, conservatives and their leadership are on the same page. The difference is in how and when to fight those battles. If it were possible to gut the Affordable Care Act or overturn Obama's "executive amnesty," as conservatives term it, leaders would have done so by now.
Forcing the issue on spending bills, in particular, hasn't worked. Boehner and McConnell have an arsenal of procedural work-arounds at their fingers that have knocked conservatives down time and again. Just look at the fight over funding the Homeland Security Department.
Back in December, conservatives warned leadership that their gambit to pass a short-term DHS spending bill to gain leverage over immigration in the spring would not work. "I made clear this was a strategy doomed to failure because in funding virtually the entirety of the federal government, leadership deliberately gave away virtually all of our leverage, putting us into a box canyon," Sen. Ted Cruz said last month. "Phil Graham famously said, never take a hostage you're not prepared to shoot. In December it was abundantly clear that Republicans were not going to shoot DHS because we care passionately about Homeland Security. It was never a credible threat."
Leadership, certainly, never intended to shoot DHS. House conservatives thought they'd pulled the wool over the eyes of an unwilling leadership team last month, forcing Senate Democrats to vote against going to conference and shutting down DHS themselves. But leaders didn't want to see another shutdown, no matter who pulled the trigger. And using a complex and little-known House rule, Boehner ally Rep. Mike Simpson was able to bring up the Senate's clean bill for a quick vote.
The best conservatives could come up with was a list of procedural stalling tactics, some of which they used. Rep. Thomas Massie, for example, moved to force the House clerk to read the entire 95-page bill aloud—though he surrendered before long. But those stalling tactics were all they had in their arsenals, and soon leadership passed the clean bill with Democratic votes.
In December, Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee were able to stall the DHS bill, keeping members in Washington for a tense weekend debate. But they didn't succeed in defeating the bill and actually gave Reid time to push through more than 60 nominees, including controversial Surgeon General nominee Vivek Murthy, in his final act as majority leader.
Cruz and Lee thought they could pull a fast one on leadership, forcing them to drop the CRomnibus strategy and halt Obama's executive action. But if there was anything they could have done, McConnell and then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would have been on the floor, a Reid aide said, arguing that the move belied a fundamental misunderstanding of the Senate's rules.
Leadership has told conservatives over and over again that this isn't the new normal, they're just clearing the docket of must-pass bills from the last Congress. Once they get those out of the way, the era of passing legislation with Democrats and over conservatives' heads will be over.
After the DHS debacle, conservatives' trust in leadership in eroding. But there is hope. Conservatives are convinced that leadership recognizes reality: The more bills they pass with Democrats, the more they weaken the Republican conference. And the more parliamentary tricks they play, the further they get away from a Republican majority that will stick together.
"I don't think conservatives are ignorant to how difficult some of these battles are," the House conservative aide said. "But they just feel like leadership is just so interested in just punting the ball all the time. "¦ Yeah, you can make the argument that voters want to see us governing, but for Republican voters, I think the sense in Congress is that we're not even trying."