Cobbling Together a Cliff Coalition

GOP leadership united on fiscal cliff deal despite conservative complaints, aides say

December 18, 2012

Negotiations over the so-called fiscal cliff entered a critical stage this week as the outlines of a potential compromise began to materialize. With a deal appearing increasingly imminent—though by no means assured—Democratic and Republican leaders could soon have to rally support for a controversial agreement.

The media spotlight has focused primarily on House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), who faces renewed criticism from the right following reports that he told the White House he could accept some tax rate increases on wealthy earners and a possible one-year debt ceiling extension in exchange for significant spending cuts and entitlement reform.

However, House leadership aides dismissed the reports as inaccurate rumors and said they remained hopeful the speaker could strike a deal that a majority of the GOP conference can rally behind.

That could prove a difficult task in the face of vocal opposition from conservative lawmakers and activists groups.

Conservative groups Club for Growth and Heritage Action on Monday strongly criticized Boehner’s reported concessions.

"The proposal, as reported, represents a clear path toward surrender on conservative principles," said Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler.

"First Speaker Boehner offered to raise tax rates after promising not to, and now he’s offering to raise the debt ceiling. Raising tax rates is anti-growth and raising the debt ceiling is pro-government growth—and this is the Republican position?" Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a statement.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), who is leaving the Senate next year to head the Heritage Foundation, has said Boehner should be worried about retaining his speakership.

Rep. Tom Price (R., Ga.) is rumored to be mulling a potential challenge if a fiscal cliff compromise proves unpalatable to the conservative rank-and-file.

Some members are angry following an alleged "purge" of conservatives, some of whom lost positions on top committees.

"We’re not doing the best job we can do," Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.), who lost his spot on the House Budget Committee, recently said of Boehner’s leadership. "We can do a lot better. We need leaders on both sides and we don’t have that right now."

Other conservatives, such as Rep. Dave Schweikert (R., Ariz.), are looking to settle their differences with party leadership. And aides say the House GOP conference remains far more unified than commonly portrayed in the media.

"Some people are going to complain no matter what," one aide said. "Most of them know what the speaker is up against and will have his back at the end of the day."

Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa), typically considered one of the more conservative members of the House, defended Boehner last week at a lunch forum hosted by the Heritage Foundation.

"I think the speaker is doing the best he can with what he has to work with, and he wants to get a deal," King said.

First-term Rep. Raul Labrador (R., Idaho) and several other freshman Republicans echoed King. Boehner continues to enjoy significant support from members of the Republicans freshman class so often described in the media as "radical."

"We’ve been through this before," one conservative lawmaker said on background. "It may not be pretty, but they’ll probably get the votes they need."

Leadership itself remains united, aides say, despite reports of dissension and rumors that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) is prepared to challenge Boehner for the speakership.

"This implication that there is breathing room within the leadership is not accurate," said a senior GOP aide. "We’re all going into this with the same mindset."

Boehner’s initial offer to the White House was notable in that it was cosigned by Cantor, majority whip Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), and chairman of major committees including former GOP vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.).

Ryan helped leaders prepare charts detailing the federal government’s spending problem and remains an influential voice behind the scenes.

Aides acknowledge that this week is critical for determining whether a deal can be reached or if the country will instead march over the fiscal cliff.

"We’ll have a pretty good by the end of this week where things stand," said the senior GOP aide. "Can’t really predict how members will react because there is no deal to sell at this point."

House Republicans will meet Tuesday morning to discuss the state of the negotiations.