GOP divided on ‘untethered’ Boehner’s role in budget talks

GOP divided on ‘untethered’ Boehner’s role in budget talks

By Peter Schroeder and Bernie Becker – 09/30/15 08:44 PM EDT

House conservatives are debating whether they want their lame-duck Speaker to be representing them in budget talks with President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

For some on the right, the decision by outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to use his final days to try to hammer out a budget for the next two years — not to mention negotiating on other hot-button issues — is out of bounds.

“It’s not appropriate,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). “Being untethered, would he tend to vote with Democrats instead of Republicans, and would he tend to negotiate from that position?”

But other conservatives are feeling more emboldened by Boehner’s looming resignation and are happy to let him make the effort, arguing they’d just kill any package deemed unacceptable.

“It’s been highlighted because of his resignation,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who paved the way for Boehner’s departure by opening procedural steps to remove him. “So I don’t see that it’s inappropriate as long as everything comes before the House and 435 members get to weigh in.”

The House Freedom Caucus, the group of several dozen conservatives, typically has operated under a united front during the rebellion against Boehner. House conservatives also have talked up the idea of voting together in next week’s leadership elections to maximize their power.

Boehner has made it clear he would like to tackle some lingering issues before he leaves office at the end of October. In addition to budget talks, he could act on the debt limit, highway funding or the Export-Import Bank, among other policy matters.

The conservative concern is that the Ohio Republican will have little incentive to cater to them, and if he is hell-bent on getting as much done as possible in his final month in office, he could craft a package with the president that they find unacceptable. House conservatives and outside groups have long believed that pressure from the right flank was the only thing keeping Boehner in line.

Dan Holler, a spokesman for the conservative group Heritage Action, called it “outrageous” that Boehner “thinks he’s entitled to … negotiate a pretty substantial legislative package.”

“The members need to stop it. The folks running for leadership positions need to say, ‘No, I’m sorry, that’s not how we’re going to handle things,’ ” Holler added.

McConnell disclosed the budget talks, long sought by Democrats, on Tuesday. Congress avoided a government shutdown on Wednesday, with about seven hours to spare, by passing a stopgap measure to fund the government
through Dec. 11.

Congressional leaders are hoping to have top-line budget numbers for two years in place well ahead of that December deadline to smooth the way for a more standard appropriations process. But there are questions about whether there’s enough time for congressional leaders and Obama to strike a budget deal before Boehner hits the exits in four weeks and how involved top Democrats on Capitol Hill should be in those talks.

Either way, the talks could put more pressure on Boehner’s likely replacement, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has tried to put some distance between himself and the Speaker in recent days amid questions about how much of a clean break he would be from the last regime.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), another longtime critic of Boehner’s, said he wants assurances McCarthy would be in the loop on a potential deal.

“Given that Speaker Boehner’s announced his resignation, I think it’s important to have Majority Leader McCarthy involved in these discussions,” he said.

Conservatives who are open to Boehner’s involvement don’t seem to be too concerned about being overconfident, despite the fact that the Speaker has shown no problem cutting deals that moved through the House largely through the support of Democrats.

“I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully he’s going to do the right thing and play it straight,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), who suggested that conservatives could take steps to block any Boehner maneuvers they dislike.

For other conservatives, the problem was less who was involved in the talks and more what was being discussed — potentially easing the budget caps put into place by the 2011 debt-limit deal.

“I don’t care who’s doing the conversation, but busting the caps is an absolute non-starter,” said Rep. Bill Flores (Texas), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “I’m really disappointed in McConnell, because he’s been talking about it for months.”

The back-and-forth also gave Senate Republicans another chance to shake their heads at their rowdy counterparts in the House. Both longtime friends of the Speaker, such as Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), and previous House colleagues of the conservatives, including Sen. James Lankford (Okla.), rolled their eyes at the fact that Boehner’s involvement in budget talks was even a debate.

“Last time I checked, he’s Speaker until he leaves,” said Burr, a frequent dining companion of Boehner’s in Washington. “They ought to thank him for doing his job.”

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